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Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio show number 329, airing for the first time on Sunday, January 7, 2018. Today’s guests are Al Miller, artistic director of The Theater Project in Brunswick, and Lauren Wayne, general manager and talent buyer for Crobo, the organization that owns the State Theatre and Port City Music Hall. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest and is located in the heart of the Old Port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space including Ingunn Joergensen, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy, and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at artcollectormaine.com.
Lisa Belisle: Al Miller is the artistic director of The Theater Project, a nonprofit community-based theater in Brunswick. He also teaches theater workshops in various states as well as Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Thanks for coming in today.
Al Miller: You’re welcome. Thanks for asking me.
Lisa Belisle: We got your name from Dr. Emily Isaacson who apparently really enjoyed her time with you at The Theater Project in Brunswick. I think it was a little while ago now.
Al Miller: It was. Yeah, it was.
Lisa Belisle: Apparently, you’ve been doing this work for a little while?
Al Miller: A long time. A long time.
Lisa Belisle: How did you start doing this?
Al Miller: I came to Maine from the Middle East, and I took part of the year to write The Great American Novel, which was awful. Then I needed work, and I saw … Actually, my then wife saw an advertisement in the paper for a summer director for the Portland Children’s Theater. I’d done some directing with kids in the Middle East, so I applied and got the job. We toured the show, and I thought this is really fun and that was the beginning. Then, I started a children’s theater in Brunswick.
I had a Volkswagen camping van that we had used in the Middle East that we brought back, and this was before the days of seat belts. When we did a show, I’d cram the actors in there. The actors were junior high and high school kids, and we toured to different venues. Eventually, we got a real van and toured around the state with shows for schools, and families, and community groups. That’s the beginning.
Lisa Belisle: It sounds like things are actually even more interesting because you got your bachelor’s degree from Williams College and your master’s degree from the University of Michigan, and somehow you ended up in Lebanon. Those things don’t necessarily follow.
Al Miller: No. It’s a long story. The short version.
Lisa Belisle: Short version, yes.
Al Miller: I was at Harvard summer school due to a severe deficiency in freshman physics at Williams College, which took a long time to resolve. It was the summer of 1958 when there was a civil war in Lebanon. Eisenhower sent in the marines. There’s a coup d’état in Iraq, and there was a civil war in Jordan. King Hussein pretty much chased the Palestinians out or some of them. I got really interested in the Middle East. I had met a Saudi Arab who became a good friend and was going to Amherst, and I was going to Williams.
Our friendship continued and by the end of the summer, I wanted to go to the Middle East. I asked my friend Sahib, “How do I get to the Middle East?” He said, “Teach.” I’d never thought of teaching, nor surely had my college professors ever thought of my teaching. I asked him where. He said, “Apply to the school where I went before I came to Amherst,” which was an old Protestant mission school with a mainly Lebanese board of trustees for kids from Lebanon, and the Middle East, and a few from Europe. I applied and just kept applying, and I think they hired me so that I’d stopped writing them. That’s how I got it. Right after graduating from Williams, I had a job for two months that summer and then left.
Lisa Belisle: How does one get from physics, to teaching, to being an artistic director in theater? It sounds like maybe there was another path that you might have been going down.
Al Miller: A friend, when I was in school freshman and sophomore year, you had to take a science. The only science I’d ever liked was biology of having taking it. I thought, “Well, I shouldn’t take it again,” so I asked a friend. Actually, a friend from the freshman football team because we had to be there early and I said, “What am I going to do? What will I take? What will I take?” He said, “Oh, take freshman physics. It’s nothing. It’s a breeze.” I took it and it became sophomore physics, and junior physics, and then finally I think from exhaustion, the physics prof passed me, let me go.
Lisa Belisle: This sounds like a pattern. The wearing down of people, eventually it just-
Al Miller: Yeah, well, maybe it is. Maybe it is, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: What was your field of study initially?
Al Miller: English. I hesitate because of the word study. As an undergrad, I was a typical, not very serious undergrad. When I went to graduate school, that’s when I should have gone to college. That’s when I was really interested. I studied English. It’s like the narrator of The Great Gatsby that so I was qualified to do nothing or anything. I went out to teach English to mostly Europe high school kids.
Lisa Belisle: What was your master’s degree in?
Al Miller: English. Then, I was interested. It still didn’t have much to do with … Then, I taught high school for a couple of years in the states. Then, I got the urge to go back to the Middle East and they were looking for someone to head the English Department and in other program at the same school, so back I went.
Lisa Belisle: Is there naturally a connection between drama and English? I mean, I think of Shakespeare obviously but …
Al Miller: That way. What was my connection?
Lisa Belisle: I guess so, yeah.
Al Miller: I never did theater when I was in school, not in elementary, high school, college, never. When I got to the Middle East, when I went back actually, there was a repertory theater in Lebanon who have worked with English speaking people, English speaking Lebanese, Brits, Americans. Every year, they did a show for kids and families. Then, they did a couple of other series shows of Shakespeare and whatever. The head of the Phys Ed Department of the school when I went back was a guy who had been the US National Trampoline Champion. He also juggled and I juggled. He taught me how to do the trampoline and then we used to juggle some and people found out.
When they wanted to cast the Emperor’s New Clothes, when they want to cast the two jesters, they thought, “Let’s get these two guys because they can roll around and juggle.” We did it and I loved it. I thought, “This is really fun,” which got me to get a theater program going at the school. Later that year, they did Waiting for Godot and asked me to do that, and I did that, and I’m not sure I understood it because I didn’t study it in college but I loved it. I think by the time I’d finished, we did a run of maybe three weeks at a little theater in town, and I think by the time I’d finished that, I decided I’m going to do something with this. I kept working with kids, and then when I came back here started something. Two years ago, did Waiting for Godot again.
Lisa Belisle: Do you understand it better now?
Al Miller: I do. I do.
Lisa Belisle: It’s interesting that you had zero background. I mean, a lot of people in the theater it’s from like they’re born, and they began breathing theater. You had zero background and just almost on a whim, they cast you in this production. Then all of a sudden, it just kind of opened up something inside.
Al Miller: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Is that something that you see yourself with children these days?
Al Miller: Do I see it in kids?
Lisa Belisle: Yeah. Is that an experience that’s common in children?
Al Miller: I don’t know. I think what I infer from it is if we’re open, we’ll find what we want to do. I never would have guessed that I do theater, nor before that I never would have guessed that I would teach. Once I decided to teach as a way to get to the Middle East, I wouldn’t have said that I’m going to be crazy about it. Then, I ended up loving teaching. I would say if there’s some force that some mystical way leads us where we ought to be, that it was successful with me. I think I’m doing … I have a dream job. I love what I do. I get to teach. I get to write. I get to direct. I clowned for a while. I act once in a while, and I work with people all the time. Where that come from? I sort of stumbled into it but it’s all worked.
Lisa Belisle: What about your family? Does your family have any background in the arts?
Al Miller: No. My mother did something with children’s theater. She helped start a theater in my hometown. I think I … No, I don’t think. I vaguely remember this. I tried out for something when I was about nine or 10 years old. I remember my mother saying to me, she worked with another woman running this little theater, the junior theater I think it was called. Her saying to me at home that she couldn’t put me in the play because she worked at the theater but that I was very good. I said, “Oh thanks,” and never took another step toward theater until stumbling into it with juggling.
Lisa Belisle: Obviously, people are very attached to their childhood experiences in the arts, music, theater because we’ve had multiple people who have said to us, “Oh, I worked with Al Miller at The Theater Project. I still remember …” and they can give very exact details about their experiences.
Al Miller: Oh, really?
Lisa Belisle: There are lots of things in childhood that we do that we don’t remember at all, or if we remember them, they certainly don’t have positive connotations. What is it about what you are offering that you think has such appeal?
Al Miller: I think theater is fun. I think when we get older, it scares us. “Oh, I could never do that.” I hear that all the time. “Oh, I could never get up there and do that.” Kids are more experimental. It’s fun. They learn responsibility because in the end they’re doing it whether I’m the director or somebody else says, “We’re not doing it.” “They’re out there, there you go. Go get them.” There are different ways to communicate in theater. Sometimes, I found especially in work in schools, the teachers will say, “Billy has never spoken once in class, and here he is doing this amazing work and this project that involves theater.”
Theater isn’t the only way. Music is another way. Dance is another way. The outdoors is another way. Kids, we do know that not all kids learn the same way. We can also remember when we were kids, we did the stuff that was fun. What are you doing? You go out and play. Often, we’re doing theater kind of play to make up stories whether it’s cops and robbers, or prince and princess, or whatever it is. That’s in us. Plus, I think people love storytelling. I don’t think they would say that necessarily, but I still find when I’m storytelling that there’s sort of this hubbub at the beginning and then it turns into, if it’s a good story, it turns into listening and really being involved. I don’t think we don’t know that. Kids don’t know that necessarily.
Now, they do all these quick change things, the electronic stuff. I’m an old guy. I get it, but I don’t do it like a kid. I ask my grandchildren, “How do you do this?” They’ll also sit down and listen to a story. If they bite, like if they want to come in and try something at the theater, shy, or obeying, or interested or, “Yeah, I just want to try this. I’ve done all these other things at school.” Usually, they’ll get involved. They like it, and it’s them. Did that make sense? That it’s their expressing their understanding of this part, their understanding of the play.
I’ve done Shakespeare with high school kids at The Theater Project, not in schools. One, they learn the lines in one twentieth of the time it would take me to learn the lines. Two, if I work through it with them, which I do, “What do you say in there? What does that mean? Okay, we got to figure that out. Right, here’s the deal. Nobody says anything that you don’t understand. We stop. We figure it out.” Then, they do a performance that’s just live. Shakespeare probably would have liked it, and I’ve had older people say, “You know that’s the first time I understood Shakespeare when I saw that.” That’s it. For me, that’s a kick. I also believe in it because there’s a kid growing.
Lisa Belisle: Is it interesting to you that in this day and age where you can access almost anything at almost any time visually? You go on YouTube or you can listen to an audio book, or people have their own live channels where they’re doing … I don’t know, basically like I’m going to go shopping for my kids at Walmart and I’m going to put it up on YouTube, and it’s going to get like 1.4 million views. All of that, and we still want to see Harry Potter one and two on stage in London. We still want to go to New York and see live shows that sell out. I mean, we have access to anything we want, and we still want to see live theater. What do you think of that?
Al Miller: There are three other people in this room. One behind me, and one to the side there, and you in front of me. I’d much rather talk to each one of you than to somehow see it screened and not, “Who is this person? Who is this person? Who is that person? What’s going on?” That’s what’s interesting. I think what gets us about theater, gets me on both sides of the lights. What gets us about theater is I’m watching human beings up there if I’m in the audience. If they slip up, there it is. It’s not, “Okay, let’s erase that in front.” If they slip up but they’re trying, I’m pulling for them so hard and usually they pull it off.
I remember seeing a show. It was actually at the Shaw Festival in Canada. A female character came down. The audience was on both sides and in the back. She came down between the audiences on the side and there was a fan on the stage that was a part of the set. She had on a boa in which she got closed to the fan, the boa started to blow across her face and she kept putting it down, and would blow again, and would blow right across her mouth and nose. It was sort of tickling her nose. You could see her fighting laughter. Finally, she had to give in and she started to laugh. Then, she pulled herself together and went on with the show. The whole audience applauded, like they’d seen this, “Look at what she did. We love that. We love that.” I think that’s part of what it is. I think we love a polished production and you mentioned New York.
I don’t tell anybody to go out there and mess up, but if you do, you’re still out there. “Go, somebody will pick you up, go,” which is also a nice thing in working with people in the show to develop an ensemble feeling, so that everybody is looking after everybody else. Nobody is going to say, “What you do that for?” They’re going to be picking each other up. That’s a good thing. That’s a good thing to learn.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah. I think that’s the opposite side of what people have gotten concerned about with children, which is that this is kind of the kids on stage culture these days that they’re also used to having their photos taken. They’re also used to being on video and selfies. In real life, if you’re actually going to do drama, then it’s not just about you. You actually have to do things differently and learn different skills.
Al Miller: Right.
Lisa Belisle: Do you think that one of the things that adults have difficulty with as they get older is the fact that we are expected to be perfect as we age? We’re supposed to be really good at whatever it is that we’re now doing, and so now we can’t do drama because then we might need to fail?
Al Miller: I’m old enough to no longer need to be perfect, so that’s good.
Lisa Belisle: I’m almost there too, so that’s a good thing.
Al Miller: Oh, no you’re not, no, no.
Lisa Belisle: Not quite yet?
Al Miller: No, no.
Lisa Belisle: Okay. All right.
Al Miller: Maybe. Maybe, and I think kids get that too because I think there’s a lot of pressure on kids now. You’re going to do this, and you’re going to do that. Then, you’re going to do this. Where’s the playtime? Where that, “Okay, let me know when you’re done.” It’s a different world, but I still have conversations with … not people who were as old as I am, but people who are anywhere between 55 and 80 maybe, who say, “When I was growing up, you left the house in the morning. If you had had to be at home for lunch, then either your mom was hollering at the door or you got yourself home because you knew you’d be in trouble if you didn’t get home when you’re supposed to be there for lunch. Then you took off again when you didn’t have school. After school, you did what you did. You got home on time.” There wasn’t that nervousness.
Also, there wasn’t the kind of programming, a lot of which there is now. It’s not … not everybody does it. You got ballet on this day, and you’ve got theater class on this day, and then you’re studying for the college boards on this day, and then … I think the freedom makes the difference. If you have more freedom when you’re young, you still grow out of it. You at least remember it. Then when we’re adults, there’s a lot of pressure. We only take this ride once as far as we know. It’s kind of a sad thing if you get to be 65, 70, 75, and say, “Oh, I wish I had …” There’s always some of that, but for the bulk of your life, “I wish I had done …” That’s bad. Change whenever you can. Are you listening out there?
Lisa Belisle: I hope so. I’m not quite as old as the age range you just said, but I remember that my mother would send my younger brothers and I, and sisters and I, we would all go out into the neighborhood. The idea was that you come home when the street lights go on, so you could stay out as long as it was dark.
Al Miller: Yeah. There you go.
Lisa Belisle: It was almost to the place where you could not see and the street lights came, and then on, and you all went home. I mean, that’s … My kids don’t really do that. I mean, they are older now, but I think there is something lost with all the scheduling of stuff that every hour seems to need to be accounted for.
Al Miller: Yeah. I remember with our kids, who are all grown up. I think three of them are older than I am now. With our kids, especially when they were teenagers, young teenagers, wanted to hang around the house, and their mom or I say, “Get out of the house. Go, go, do something. Go.” “I just want to …” “Go, get out.” Then they’d go out and they’d find something to do and that would be good.
Lisa Belisle: Now, we don’t have them in the house enough. Some of us, they’re so busy doing other things elsewhere.
Al Miller: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: It’s kind of we’ve gone a little too far in the other direction.
Al Miller: Yes. Maybe, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: I mean, it’s not all bad. For example, The Theater Project has been around for how many years?
Al Miller: Oh, it’s going on at 45, 46. Yeah, a long time.
Lisa Belisle: That’s a nice thing that has evolved and has become available for kids in Maine. It wasn’t at one time available. We actually have arts organizations where kids can reap benefit.
Al Miller: Yeah. I think it’s good. We have a good open attitude toward kids.
Lisa Belisle: Do you ever get children who come in because their parents think that this is a good idea for them, rather than them thinking that it’s a good idea for themselves?
Al Miller: Yeah, not very often, but yes.
Lisa Belisle: How do you deal with that?
Al Miller: If I sense that and the kid is old enough, I have to say, “Did you want to do this? Really?” “Ah, no. My mother told me I …” “How’s it going?” “It’s going all right.” “Okay, let me know.” Then, if a kid doesn’t want to do it, talk to the parents and say, “You know, Johnny didn’t really want to do this. We’d love to have him but not if he didn’t want to do it.” Usually, if they come in under pressure, they end up liking it but sometimes not.
Lisa Belisle: Then what happens? Do they quit or do they find another role within what you’re doing?
Al Miller: If they don’t like it?
Lisa Belisle: Yeah.
Al Miller: If they don’t like it, one of us with whoever is teaching the class or directing the show would say, “If you’re going to do this, you need to be willing to do these things. These are the things we do. If you don’t want to do those, maybe you don’t want to be here. I’d love to have you here but decide if you want to be here or not.” The language varies depending on the age of the kid, or if they’re really on the younger end of the spectrum, speak to the parents and say, “Does Billy really want to do this or Betty?”
Lisa Belisle: Are you sometimes able to find like some kids don’t want to be on stage but they don’t mind painting sets? They don’t mind being behind the scenes, or you sometimes able to-
Al Miller: Sometimes because of the nature of the building we work in, there isn’t a lot of set painting and that sort of stuff that we do. If the kid really wanted to learn how to do the lights, we try to arrange that or help. “Do you want to help with the production?” “Yeah.” “Okay. Then, we’ll find something. You can help the stage manager. You can help with the costumes and see how you like that. If you want to just get out here, then probably that’s what you ought to do, and then if you like you want to come back later, come back.”
Lisa Belisle: I like it. You’re giving them the chance to make a decision about what really should be play.
Al Miller: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: They do call it a play.
Al Miller: Yes, exactly. I remember a mother saying, “Yeah, she will,” growling.
Lisa Belisle: I appreciate you’re taking the time to come in today and the work that you’ve done. Clearly making a huge imprint on children around the State of Maine. I’ve been speaking with Al Miller who is the artistic director of The Theater Project, a nonprofit community-based theater in Brunswick. He also teaches theater workshops in various states as well as Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Keep up the good work.
Al Miller: Thank you very much.
Lisa Belisle: Have fun.
Al Miller: Thanks. I will.
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Lisa Belisle: Lauren Wayne is general manager and talent buyer for Crobo, the company that owns and operates the State Theatre and Port City Music Hall. They are also the exclusive live concert promoters for the new outdoor music venue at Thompson’s Point. Thanks for coming in today.
Lauren Wayne: Thanks for having me.
Lisa Belisle: You really are very busy individual and it just continues to expand from what I can see.
Lauren Wayne: It has. We’ve been pretty fortunate over the last seven years since we open the State to continuously expand. It’s been pretty exciting for us.
Lisa Belisle: I remember the State as being somewhat of a sketchy-
Lauren Wayne: Oh, yeah. It was pretty sketchy. It shut down I think in the ’90s after it was a porn theater. I mean, if you consider that sketchy. Some people just think that’s normal.
Lisa Belisle: I think back in the ’90s, it still was a little sketchy, maybe it’s normalized now.
Lauren Wayne: Yeah. It shut down. They reopened it as a nonprofit, the people who owned it and operated it. They tried to do that for a few years and it just failed. I came on board when what was then known as [inaudible 00:31:05] Company, which is now kind of morphed over the years into Live Nation as nationally known. We’re the exclusive promoters of the State but when I was there, we never owned or operate it. There was an owner. There was a renter, and then we rented it from the renter. There were three people who were kind of involved in the theater who weren’t really dumping any money into it. We did concerts there off and on for a few years, and then the city shut it down in 2006 because it was in extreme disrepair. I changed jobs. I’m going off here sorry. You’re not even asking me questions.
Lisa Belisle: No, you’re still answering the same one. It’s a good answer.
Lauren Wayne: Okay, good. I changed jobs and I came on with the company now with whom I’m … with who I’m with, whatever. I’ll just leave that dangling out there. They signed the lease in 2010, got me on board. Then we renovated it after the landlord actually had dumped a lot of money into it. I think all in all, it was a $1.4 million renovation.
Lisa Belisle: It’s really become kind of a focal point for Congress Street.
Lauren Wayne: Yeah. It’s going to become even more a focal point when we finally get our new marquee up, to Portland for the scaff and the plywood. That’s been up for the last couple of weeks. It really has. I think it was a really great time for us to come in music-wise and with the growth of the city, the way that it started and the way that it’s continuing to do that. It’s been pretty exciting to kind of have your hand in that, and watch it grow, and be a part of it. We do about 90 on average concerts a year there, not including what we’re doing down the street at our club. It’s busy. It’s a good focal point and it’s nice. To see like the growth and the renovation of the building and the street, beyond High Street has been pretty awesome since we opened.
Lisa Belisle: It seems like whenever somebody starts paying attention to a building or a venue of some sort, that other people around it, it almost gives them inspiration to do the same thing?
Lauren Wayne: It does. It really does. Since we’ve been there, we’ve had a bunch of restaurants that have opened up on that block. There’s been bars. There’s the Jewel Box. Blue’s been there a while. It’s been really cool because that whole block was in relatively pretty bad disrepair. Now, it’s like one of my favorite places to be?
Lisa Belisle: How did you come to be doing the work that you do?
Lauren Wayne: It’s a good question. I did not go to school for it. I had no experience. I just really love music. I went to school for history and journalism, and I don’t use any of it. Just kidding, I use journalism a little bit. I just kind of met somebody when I was hanging out at the [inaudible 00:33:48], back in the day. He knew a guy and he introduced me. This person happened to be [inaudible 00:33:54] who was in with the [inaudible 00:33:56] Company and he was looking for a marketing coordinator, and he hired me. That’s how I got into it. It’s really all who you know.
Lisa Belisle: I do think that’s an important point especially given what you are currently doing.
Lauren Wayne: Yeah, which was working at AAA and FedEx.
Lisa Belisle: Wait. That’s very interesting that you would kind of start off in a fairly mainstream corporate structure, and then by some I guess luck of association, you found your way into something that really fit you very well.
Lauren Wayne: Yeah. It wasn’t what I was doing with FedEx and AAA. I was not … I was working obviously for huge corporations, but I was packing planes and being a dispatcher. When my friends and I moved to Portland, it was on a whim. We were from Sedona, Arizona. We came out. We visited. We fell in love. We signed a lease a week later. I knew I didn’t … I went to a relatively conservative yet I guess … Whatever, I’m not going to say the name. I went to a relatively conservative college, and so most of my friends at a college went right for it. They got the financial analyst jobs, and they became lawyers, and they went to work for big corporations and start to have families. I knew that just wasn’t what I wanted right away, and I knew I wanted to wait for something that really felt right. I’m really glad I did because it really paid off.
Lisa Belisle: How did you end up at a conservative college in the first place?
Lauren Wayne: It was kind of liberal but not really. It’s in the south, in Virginia and I knew that I want to go back to Virginia. I was born there and a lot of my mom’s family is there for history. I’m a big Civil War buff, and I thought I was going to go either be a historian or a television broadcast journalist, but while I was in school I realized when you’re a broadcast journalist, you cannot have opinions on the air. You need to be relatively neutral, and that was very, very hard for me so I had gone down the road long enough where I finished the degree and then I was concentrating now more on the history. Then, when I got to college I was like, “What the … I don’t know,” and so I just moved out west and just kind of figure out some stuff, had fun, did a lot of hiking and stuff.
Lisa Belisle: So that was actually a pretty magical place?
Lauren Wayne: Yeah. I didn’t hit there first. I landed in Albuquerque. I lived there for two and a half years and I was a recycling coordinator. I would go buy big-box stores, cardboard bales, and I would negotiate the price for cardboard bales at places like Target, and Walmart, and the big-box stores. Then, my brother at that time lived in Santa Fe. He moved to Sedona. He has ties and [inaudible 00:36:43] for college to start a garbage and recycling company. I moved there in 1998 I think or 1999, and I was his recycling driver. I would drive the big truck and sort recycling, and run into big gates when it was icy and take down some trees with the big box trailer.
Lisa Belisle: It’s not the magic of Sedona that caused you to reinvent yourself somehow?
Lauren Wayne: Yeah, it wasn’t. The magic wasn’t helping that truck. No, but it’s definitely a magical place, and I try to get back there every year. He and his wife still live there, so we go back for about two weeks every year if we can.
Lisa Belisle: What was music for you when you were younger? What did you sing? Did you play instruments?
Lauren Wayne: No, I did. I play the piano. I started late. My parents never pressured me in an instrument. Then when I was 13, I just decided that I wanted to play the piano and I’m really glad I did it. I practiced for three years, and I think started at that time where I was interested and stayed with it and was pretty okay at it. Then, that kind of just tailored or tickered off. My mom’s family is a huge music family, so we would go to like a beach vacation every other year starting when I was maybe eight or nine. My uncles, my mom has four brothers and a sister, and all of the uncles are musically inclined. They brought up the guitars, and we’d sing Crosby, Stills and Nash. That’s really what got me started.
Then, I’ve just really always, this sounds so cliche but for me it’s like been a huge part of my life. I mean, it can set your emotions. It can change your mood. One of my favorite things to pick me up if I’m feeling down, is just to like get in the car and drive with the windows down and like your favorite songs. It’s just … It’s magical really, and I knew I wanted to do something with it. I just didn’t know what it was, but it was not going to be on stage. That, I’ll tell you that. This is already hard enough.
Lisa Belisle: Why not on stage?
Lauren Wayne: I’m not really into that. It’s not for me, like I don’t really getting up in front of people.
Lisa Belisle: So how would you been a broadcast journalist?
Lauren Wayne: Well, on TV, it’s a different thing. If you don’t see them, they don’t exists, but on stage, it’s a totally different thing. It’s a hard, hard life. It’s a really hard life. I always knew that was not for me, but I never actually knew that there was a whole another side of it. A lot of people who I worked with now, and who were with the company or with my parent companies, they grew up in that and they knew right out at college, or they’re doing this in college. They’re hanging up posters for shows, and they were promoters. I just … I never knew that there was that side of business. I just never thought about it. Then when I found out that there’s this whole other side of the music industry, I knew that was for me.
Lisa Belisle: What is it about that side of the music industry that you find so appealing?
Lauren Wayne: I think for me, it was figuring out that you could have a part of putting on a show because I always love to go into concerts and I still do. It’s harder to get to ones that we’re not doing right now, but that when you’re at a show, how much you change as either like … If they’re working, or you’re there enjoying the show, or you’re on stage, or you’re a guitar tech, or you’re a promoter, it’s just this feeling of like connection and being part of a tiny community within a community. I was like, “I’m really kind of that’s cool to be a part of that. It’s cool to help put it on,” and then it’s like really cool when you’re there and kind of looking around, I mean like, “Oh my God, I had a totally a big part of making this happen for everybody,” and that’s really cool. It’s a nice feeling.
Lisa Belisle: What are some of the differences that you found between putting together a show lineup for the State for example in Thompson’s Point?
Lauren Wayne: There’s so many different things about it. The one thing that I feel really grateful for is that I’ve been on the ground floor of all three venues that we own and operate, and so you’re pretty much directing what happens and that’s a big thing for me. The State is totally different. It’s four walls, the infrastructures there. It’s a building. You’re not bringing in sound and lights every show. In terms of the booking, it’s not too, too much different. It’s really kind of what we do.
We have certain genres that we are more comfortable, what we call a talent buy for. It’s just the money is much larger at Thompson’s Point because the infrastructure is not there. You’re building and breaking down, and so it’s a lot more financially risky. In terms of like the lineup, you have to have a high risk tolerance for this job. You have to have a really high risk tolerance for Thompson’s Point. There are stuff that I’m not going to be taking a risk on there but fortunately, that stuff we can always bring at the theater.
I think most agents and musicians understand that. They don’t want to be put in a situation where they’re uncomfortable with under sales, and there’s only 1,000 people at a 5,000 capacity venue. That’s not going to make them feel good, and I don’t want to put them in that position. That’s another part of the job too. It’s a lot of loyalty and trust. The trust that the agent, the musician has in us as promoters to make them feel good and put on a great show, and the trust that we have in them that they’re going to come. They’re going to show up on time and they’re going to nail it for everybody; because it’s a huge responsibility when you sell either 800 tickets or 1,800 tickets at the State, or 5,000 to 7,000 at Thompson’s Point. You’ve done everything you can to the best of your ability, and the best way that you can up until the show day. Then when the musicians get on stage, you’re kind of like, “Okay please, please don’t walk off stage after three songs.”
Lisa Belisle: What about people like our producers, Spencer Albee who does Beatles Night every year? What? What the…
Speaker 5: Just check it out Lauren.
Lauren Wayne: I’ve heard all about it.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about that relationship? That ongoing year after a year relationship with a local musician and his group that have also been really all over the United States, and maybe all over the world? We’ll say the United States.
Lauren Wayne: No. I mean the relationship I have with Spencer is definitely special, but it’s something that we, for lack of better word, cherish, the relationship with us and local musicians. It’s not something we get to do a lot at a venue as large as the State and especially at Thompson’s Point, but when we can, we love to do it. It’s been amazing both personally and professionally to watch Spencer do what he’s done with both his own music and with the music of the Beatles, and to be a part of this growth and all the nights is amazing. It’s one of my favorite nights of the year.
If I ever leave for Thanksgiving, I make sure that I fly home in time for Beatles Night. It’s that awesome, and just that feeling when you’re in the audience, it’s like the best night of the year for your local musicians either on stage or like all around you. It’s amazing sense of community, everybody is there. You’re either seeing your best friends on stage play music, or you’re surrounded by your best friends enjoying the music. It’s something that cannot be repeated. It’s awesome. Thank you.
Speaker 5: Thanks.
Lisa Belisle: This summer, Spencer also took part in a larger performance with Guster and with Ghost of Paul Revere. That’s another interesting example of a local, and national, or international talent.
Lauren Wayne: Yes. There will be occasions when a national artist doesn’t … We call it tour with package. When they’re touring with the package, they usually create their own experience on stage, which also means bringing their own support and opening bands. There are times when national artists ask us to put on local original acts, which is we love when we get those emails and calls. Guster because they have local ties to the community with Adam and Lauren, and being half of them from Vermont, they really get it and what like Portland is all about. They were very, very interested and wanted to create a music festival weekend, mini festival that really incorporated not only local businesses and retail, but local musicians. That was a really … I don’t know if you guys went to the other things are going on around town, but those guys were tired after that weekend. They did a lot, but that day with Spencer on stage and one of his band mates is actually one of my co-workers, McCrae Hathaway, so that was really cool for us to see him up there.
Lisa Belisle: It was also a fun crowd. We were there with our kids, and our kids are all older in their 20s. The youngest is 16. I don’t think she was there that night, but it was nice to be able to see other people in the community who were there for different reasons. There were some people were there because they remembered when Guster started out at Tufts, so 20 years ago or whatever it was.
Lauren Wayne: Yeah 25.
Lisa Belisle: 25 years ago, yeah.
Lauren Wayne: Crazy.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah. Then, there were other people who are friends of Spencer, other people who are friends of Ghost of Paul Revere and other people … so everybody had kind of a different reason for being there but it felt very homey.
Lauren Wayne: Yeah. That’s something that with the artists and with all the people involved, something that we pride ourselves on it. Any of our venues just creating, one a safe space, but a space where you feel connected and that you belong, which is something that’s really important to me and my stuff. As soon as you … Even just buy the ticket, your experience throughout the whole process, if you have questions, if you go online, if you call us on the phone and then when you give the ticket to the ticket scanner, when you walk into that venue, we want you to feel happy.
We want you to feel connected. We want you to feel … I know this is cheesy, but this is what we want. We want you to like hug your neighbor if you want to, or like do a dance. It’s very, very important to us that you have that good of a time at any of our venues. That’s really what music is all about. It brings people together, and when you’re there for those three hours, you should have like the best time of your life. We want to help you have that experience.
Lisa Belisle: It’s an interesting thing for me now as a parent of 20-something year olds that to experience that they have the same musical taste and sometimes that I do, because it used to be my parents listened to something when they listened to their albums on vinyl. Then, I listened to my cassettes I guess because I was a little bit too young for 8-tracks; but now with iTunes, there’s so much crossover that it’s funny to know that other people like your children can like the same things you do.
Lauren Wayne: Yeah. I mean I love Ninjago music because my five-year-old loves it. Just kidding, I don’t really like it but that’s what he’s listening to. Yeah, it’s cool. Obviously, streaming has just changed the way people are getting their music out, and the music business, and labels, and all that. I think it’s amazing and one of the best things. I’m not a musician now, so I don’t have to deal with licensing fees other than paying what we do at the venue, but it’s just bringing it to more people faster. It’s also, can be a con if you’re trying to keep up with the latest and greatest, but I don’t think most people are trying to do that anymore. They just want to discover something new, what they like.
I remember in terms of bringing the generations together, my parents used to have a beach party every year when we live in Georgia. They used to ship in sand. The whole driveway was filled with sand and it was like a neighborhood beach party and they played ’60s shag music and Motown. I love now ’60s shag music and Motown. I never listened to it as a kid because I’m like, “Gross, they’re dancing,” but now, it’s like Motown music is where it’s at.
Lisa Belisle: Is there also something about the emotions associated with the group that you’re with at the time? I mean you talked about these events with your family, with your parents, and how that has created this emotional tie to that music? Is this something that you are trying to capitalize on somewhat in music venues?
Lauren Wayne: Yeah. I mean obviously we’re for profit business and we’re not interested in losing money. Yeah, there’s something we said we … It’s not all fun and games and music, and I have to do P&L’s, and flash reports, and a lot of Excel spreadsheets. That is the downside of it, but the upside is not seeing any red on the Excel sheets. So sure, I mean in full disclosure, no we do not want to lose money, but we’re very good at what we do and what we do is good times and it’s all working out.
Lisa Belisle: We talked to Bill Ryan, the owner of the Red Claws about his time at Oxford playing speedway. One of the things he talked about was weather, and how that was just such a big part of every conversation because of course, their events are all outside.
Lauren Wayne: Yup, all outdoors, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: This must be at least some part of the conversation when it comes to Thompson’s Point?
Lauren Wayne: Yeah, of course. It’s a huge stress but you just have to kind of let it go because what are you going to do? I mean we’re promoters, and we’ve decided to do an outdoor amphitheater. That’s all you can do. You just hope that the weather is going to be good and there are things in place that will help us if we get rained out. We have weather insurance. We subscribed to a weather forecasting service that’s tailored to wherever you are with lightning strikes, and radiuses, and all that.
I mean, an example is Alabama Shakes this year. We had a sold out show. It’s sold out in a day with 7,500 people coming and it was forecasted for storms. I literally like was looking at a computer screen the entire 48 hours leading up to the show, and on the show, and my eyes the next day were like bleeding, and ended up working out great. We started the show a bit early with the support, and the Alabama Shakes ended up doing an encore and finishing the set just when lightning struck, so then we had to evacuate the venue. Yeah, weather plays a big part of it but you can’t control the weather, so you just kind of smile and hope that the Alabama Shakes get an encore.
Lisa Belisle: It seems like Portland has been able to attract some pretty impressive names maybe in the last 10 years probably before that but seemed like there was a little bit of a downturn when I talked to Carol Noonan from Stone Mountain.
Lauren Wayne: Stone Mountain, yup.
Lisa Belisle: She was saying that there was a little bit of a low, where there wasn’t a lot of live music, but now even on Western Maine, she’s able to capitalize on the fact that people really are enjoying live music again.
Lauren Wayne: Yeah. There’s a lot to that. There’s a lot of different parts. I think a lot of it has to do with the more active live music is in a city or a market, the more stuff you’re going to be getting. I think we’ve played a big part in that just with the State Theatre being open. No band wants … Any developing band wants to come and play a small venue like Port City but then have nowhere else to play the bigger that they get. With places like Portland House of Music, and Blue, and One Longfellow, you have the ability to get these developing bands in there. Eventually get to Port City, and their goal one day is to play the State Theatre at 2,000 cap. It’s like the sweet spot in venues and put them to more activity or getting through Portland.
Agents and other musicians are taking notice, so they’re like, “Wait, that band played there. I want my band to play there.” Carol Noonan is doing awesome things out west, and there are some wineries now up north. It’s great. Cellardoor brings in these like amazing acts. It’s cool, and it’s really great to … We’re not, it’s not a competition. We know that … I mean, I know that I can’t be doing this without the smaller rooms in town, I just can’t. For me, I owe them. When somebody comes to me and it doesn’t necessarily fit in any of our fabric, in our venues say, “Hey, there’s this awesome room down the street, you want to check it out.”
Yeah, the more activity I think a city gets, or a market, it’s just going to get better, and better, and better. There was that dry spell when the State closed and it was awful. Then when we opened, even that fall in 2010, it was real hard to remind agents and musicians that, “Okay, Portland was viable market. It’s not been for four years. It’s been pretty dark, give us a chance again.” Then, that was seven years ago, and now, it’s not a lot reaching out anymore. It’s a lot of taking calls and emails about agents being proactive in getting their bands through Maine, not just Portland.
Lisa Belisle: What would you say your biggest challenges in this industry?
Lauren Wayne: One of the biggest challenges that I think we’ve done pretty well with is we’re what we consider a tertiary market. It’s a small market. When you think that Portland is only what? It’s about 65,000 people but the surrounding suburbs just 300,000, that’s small when we were doing 250 shows a year, and that’s just our venues. Then, you have all the other venues. One thing that we’ve really tried to do is these bands are making so much more money in primary and secondary markets that their ticket prices are a lot higher.
It’s really been training like the bands and the agents like, “When you’re coming to Portland, I can’t have a $100 ticket. I can’t even have $75 ticket.” It’s got to be an Elvis Costello for that high of a ticket price. We’ve kind of inched. We started out relatively inexpensive, and then you inch your way up until people are used to it, plus people are doing better than 10 years ago. The growth that the city has seen is definitely helping that. Our average ticket price now at the State is $35 dollars when it used to be 25. That’s a big challenge that we had, but it’s working out.
Another challenge is just I’ve been so grateful for my staff just putting on a show is really difficult. I do the buying and the marketing, and then basically have a lot of trust and loyalty in my staff to put the show on. They go through some really challenging times and aspects with doing a show, and they don’t get a lot of the credit, and they’re amazing. It’s 250 shows a year. That’s a lot of shows and we’re small crew. The women and men who work for us in production, and the bar, and just general staff is just … It’s amazing, so thank you guys.
You always say you can’t do it without each other, but I literally can’t. If I just booked and marketed a show and sold the tickets and then walked away, there won’t be a show. There’s all kinds of challenges, but whatever. We take them one day at a time really, and then your show is ending and then you’re on to the next show.
Lisa Belisle: Well, this has really been a pleasure.
Lauren Wayne: Oh, thanks for having me.
Lisa Belisle: This conversation, I’ve been speaking with Lauren Wayne who is general manager and talent buyer for Crobo, the company that owns and operates the State Theatre and Port City Music Hall. Oh, thank you by the way for bringing Delta Rae in.
Lisa Belisle: I love Delta Rae [crosstalk 00:56:39] with my daughter.
Lauren Wayne: You’re welcome and thanks to Delta Rae.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, great group. They are the exclusive live concert promoters for the new outdoor music venue at Thompson’s Point. I appreciate your time.
Lauren Wayne: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: You have been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 329. Our guests have included Al Miller and Lauren Wayne. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview with each week show, sign up for our E-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Dr. Lisa and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. Please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you’ve heard about them here. We are pleased that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producers are Paul Koenig and Brittany Cost. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at lovemaineradio.com.
Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at LoveMaineRadio.com.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, Show #328, airing for the first time on Sunday, December 31, 2017. Today’s guests are Shay Stewart-Bouley writer and executive director of the anti-racism organization Community Change and Laura and Malcolm Gauld, president and executive chairman of the Hyde School in Bath, and co-authors of
Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest and is located in the heart of the Old Port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space including Ingen Jorgenson, Brenda Serione, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy, and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at ArtCollectorMaine.com.
Lisa Belisle: Shay Stewart-Bouley is the executive director of Community Change, a nearly 50-year-old anti-racism organization based in Boston that organizes and educates for racial equity with a specific focus on working with white people. She is also the creator of the well-known blog “Black Girl in Maine.” Thanks for coming in today.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Thank you for having me.
Lisa Belisle: You have actually a lot of interesting things that we could talk about.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Right!
Lisa Belisle: I’m most interested in, I guess, first coming to Maine. You’ve been here for quite a while, 2002.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Right.
Lisa Belisle: Why choose essentially one of the whitest states in the nation?
Shay Stewart-Bouley: I didn’t choose this state intentionally, and I rarely talk about the reason why I moved here. I’ve been married twice. My first husband and I, when we divorced in, God knows, 1990-something, our son was still pretty young. We’ll just say that our custody arrangement at one point just required us to be in the same place. Since he had moved back here and was unwilling to move back to Chicago, I was pretty much forced to move here.
Lisa Belisle: That’s kind of unfortunate! It’s an unfortunate way to have to come to a state.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Right, yeah, so to be completely honest, when people always ask, “How did you choose Maine?” I would have never chosen Maine on my own. It was sort of like, you’re a mother, you need to do what’s best for your children, you go where you have to go.
Lisa Belisle: All right. Now you’re here.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: I am here!
Lisa Belisle: It must have been an interesting journey for you.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: It was quite an interesting journey in that it really just flipped my whole life upside down in terms of everything that I was planning on doing. Prior to moving to Maine, all of my work had been in social services, primarily working with homeless people in Chicago. I was program director of a couple different homeless shelters, and that was really my focus, working with low-income homeless people. I grew up working class, so definitely had quite an affinity for how to help people.
Moving here just changed all of that! I did that for a number of years, but certain things just unfolded the longer I was here, and it was like, “Oh, okay, I guess I’m going to be doing different work now.”
Lisa Belisle: You chose … Well, working with homeless people, that’s difficult just to start with. How did that grab you? What was your intention when you first started in that field?
Shay Stewart-Bouley: A lot of it had to do with my own childhood. There was about a six month period when my parents were homeless. Thankfully, we met many great people along the way. I was about 10 or 11 at that time, and I never forgot those people and what that work meant to me, and just thinking about services for homeless people in this country have really deteriorated over, I would say, the past several decades, so I felt a really strong affinity to give back. It just made a lot of sense, it worked really well. Homeless shelters have really interesting hours when you’re raising children because they’re open at night time, so my first job was doing the third shift at a homeless shelter. It was work that I just had a natural fit for.
Lisa Belisle: Most people don’t have a natural fit for working in that field.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Well, I mean, I was able to understand our clients really well, and just understand, “Well, there’s so many reasons why people become homeless, and especially people with children.” For me, it was really, again, a way to just give back. When you’re a child and you’re thinking about what do you want to be when you grow up, working with the homeless is not on that list. My daughter, who’s 12, will often ask me, “What did you want to be when you wanted to grow up?” I actually wanted to be either an actor or an attorney. I am neither of those things, though I did study theater for a number of years in Chicago, up until the point at which I moved here, when I was close to about 30. I would often take improv classes in my 20s. I’m sure it’s a really good skill to have given that I talk a lot, but I’m neither an actor nor an attorney.
Lisa Belisle: But you have created something that’s really important, and probably the experiences that you’ve had in acting and in speaking have really contributed positively to that.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Oh yeah! I mean, I definitely would say that those experiences … I’m a person who I feel every experience that I have, it’s just a building block, it builds on top of something else that I do. Most certainly what I’ve created in terms of my work with Black Girl in Maine, which actually started off as a joke. In 2008, I, like many people, got caught up in the economic crash and started working with a life coach, and was trying to figure out, “What do I want to do with my life?” I always wanted to write, but I’m not the greatest writer. At that time, I was still doing some writing for the Portland Phoenix here, but I was really feeling hemmed in by the limitations of writing a regular column in a publication where it was like I had 600 words and I had all these things I wanted to say.
My daughter at the time was three, and working with the life coach, one of her suggestions was, “What if you start a blog?” At the time, the mommy blogging thing was really big, I had a three year old and a 16 year old, so I thought, “Great! I’ve got tons of years of parenting experience, let’s write about my kids.” Even the name of the blog is a joke because I told my then-husband, “Yeah, I should call it Black Girl in Maine.” He goes, Why don’t you call it Black Girl in Maine? I thought, “I don’t know, it sounds kind of weird to call your blog Black Girl in Maine.” But then I thought, well, that’s actually reflective of who I am, so let’s call it Black Girl in Maine!
In the earlier years, I would say 2008 to probably about 2012, I did do a lot of postings around parenting, specifically through the lens of raising black children in Maine. However, one of the things I discovered with blogging with focusing on parenting is that your children get to a certain age where you can’t really write about them. Given that I started the blog when my son was 16, he was sophomore, junior in high school at that time, he was pretty good-natured about me writing about a lot of stuff. But when he went to college, it became really clear that his stories weren’t really my stories to tell anymore, and so I started to have a shift in terms of writing more about race, especially as I started seeing things more through a racialized lens in terms of understanding how Maine operates and why it’s so white. It really was just this natural … There was no thought to it, there was no game plan. It just sort of … Where the blog is now was never part of my life plan, it just sort of happened.
Lisa Belisle: What did you learn? Why is Maine so white? How does Maine operate? Having lived here all my life, it’s harder for me to see what somebody who’s more objective can see.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Well, in part because white Americans in general, and it’s not just Maine, operate in what I call the “silo of whiteness.” I should probably backtrack a little bit. One of my degrees, I have an undergraduate degree in African-American Studies, so I understand a lot about history as it relates to African-American people and understanding that a lot of history that’s taught in our school systems actually is pretty whitewashed.
Maine operates in what I call a silo of whiteness. There are a number of reasons that it’s not an attractive place for people of color to live. There’s the economic component. I know that one of the things that was hard for me moving here, I started graduate school when I was here, and I went to graduate school in New Hampshire, which is looking at the economic difference in terms of salaries, and thinking, “Why are the salaries so much lower here?” That’s partly why I actually have a job that’s based in Boston.
I think that just the culture itself, it’s very insular, it’s very, very much a New Englandy type of place. That’s my made-up word there, “New Englandy.” I don’t think it’s really warm and receptive to newcomers. That most certainly was my experience for many, many years.
I also think that the culture here is very polite in the sense that people don’t really ever go deep in their conversations. One of my biggest pet peeves of living here is how surface people are. Do we really care about the Patriots or the Red Sox or the weather, which is my biggest pet peeve? I hate talking about weather. Of all the things in the world that I can talk about, talking about the weather seems like a waste of time for me because guess what? I can’t change the weather! It’s funny to me because Mainers are very territorial about their weather. It’s like, well, I’ve lived in the Midwest and traveled through a good chunk of the United States. The weather is just what the weather is.
Lisa Belisle: You are entering into a conversation with someone and they’re asking you yet again to talk about the weather or the Red Sox or the Patriots, but you’d prefer to talk about something else. How do you move in that direction?
Shay Stewart-Bouley: It actually depends on who I’m talking to. Some people you can just kind of gauge, they’re not going to want to go deeper with you because a lot of times, people aren’t comfortable having deeper conversations. You look at where we are in this country right now, and it feels like every conversation is off-limits in the sense that people don’t like to talk about politics, they don’t want to talk about race. It’s really funny because in this moment as we’re recording this, thinking about the past couple weeks in this nation and some of the things that have been going on with the administration and then circling around race, and yet most of us in our day to day conversations that are the passing conversations, never do we actually say, “So what do you think about this whole me thing?” What are your thoughts on it?” People don’t have the language, I think, in many cases, specifically white people, to have those conversations.
A big part of it is how, I would say, white folks are socialized. I think a lot of folks, depending on the generation that they come from, probably starting from Generation X down, “Well, we shouldn’t talk about race because it’s not nice,” but the fact is, if we don’t talk about race, we allow certain attitudes and stereotypes to continue to self-perpetuate. If there’s one thing that came out of what happened in Charlottesville to me that stood out was that these were younger white people. These were not your grandfather’s generation of racists. These were younger people. How does someone in their 20s and 30s in this day and age harbor those types of views? Probably because they were raised in a family where nobody talked about race.
More importantly, if you operate in what I call that silo of whiteness, most of the people that you’re around are just like you, so you never actually have to confront any type of difference. You don’t have a vocabulary to do that. It’s sort of a fertile ground for just letting whatever grow in terms of the weeds and that starts to choke people’s humanity.
Lisa Belisle: Why are things off-limits? Why have we gotten to this place where people are so concerned about what they say that they can’t say anything at all?
Shay Stewart-Bouley: I think to some degree, we’ve always been that way. I think, what were the big ones that people used to never talk about? Religion, politics, money, sex. We just continued that culture, which is rather ironic to me, given that we live in the age of Facebook and people can just go online and share whatever, but in our face to face encounters, we don’t feel comfortable having those conversations.
A lot of my work, frankly, is about getting people to work through that discomfort, getting them to the point of, “If I talk about race” or we acknowledge that, oh, that is a black person or that is an Asian person, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, we should never be colorblind because being colorblind doesn’t help anything either. Really being able to feel comfortable naming things and understanding that naming something is not being against it or being racist.
I think part of it’s just the culture that we’ve all been raised in, and that if we’re not intentional and we don’t say with intention, “You know what? We’re done with that, we’re going to start talking,” it just continues.
Lisa Belisle: Let’s start with naming. This is something that I think a lot of people struggle with. We don’t want to step wrong into a space where we say, “This is the name of a person of color,” because even that, we might get called racist for.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Well, and it’s interesting that you say that, because frankly, that is such a … It’s, again, a very white American mindset. I feel like white people, they’re more bothered about being called a racist than they are in terms of actually engaging in racist behavior. That’s hard. I mean, you’ve just got to get over that. It really is, I’m sorry, you’ve got to buck up and just get over it and realize that naming something is not racist. Racism is a system.
I use the academic definition of racism, which is power and privilege. You look at who holds power and privilege in this country, and the vast majority of power and privilege, it’s held by white people. I think that for white people, when they look at racism, they’re looking at it from an interpersonal personal perspective and not looking at the structure of racism, not looking in their own communities and going, “Gee, I’ve never really thought about it. Why are all the teachers in my community white? Why are all the police officers in my community white? What does that mean if there are families of color or folks of color in my community and all the systems and structures are made up of white people?” Because if you don’t have different people at the table, you most certainly are going to continue to perpetuate well-meaning, yet racist behaviors.
Lisa Belisle: One of the things that we have talked about … At Maine Magazine, we’re all white.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Why are you all white? I guess I would ask that.
Lisa Belisle: First of all, I don’t know why we’re all white. I think probably because, and I’m not the person who does the hiring, but we haven’t had a lot of people who have been … Would you prefer person of color, black? What would you …
Shay Stewart-Bouley: I’m black.
Lisa Belisle: You’re black, okay.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: I can’t, I don’t speak for people of color, but I’m black, and I’m black American.
Lisa Belisle: Okay, so say black Americans. We just haven’t had that many people who are black American, for whatever reason, come to the magazine to want to work here. We all happen to be white, and yet we also would like to be inclusive and we would like to cover people who are black and of other … I’m trying to talk in a really awkward way, so you know that I’m coming from my own silo of whiteness here. I acknowledge that.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: No, I can tell. I’m looking at your body language. I can tell that given everything that you do, that this is probably like, “Wow, I’m having a moment where I’ve got to think a little bit about this,” and I can tell it’s probably not a regular conversation that you have.
Lisa Belisle: No, it’s incredibly difficult, because I don’t want to say anything that is insulting or wrong.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Right.
Lisa Belisle: But I really do want to engage in this conversation, because I think about trying to be inclusive, and sometimes when we’re trying to be inclusive, it ends up being more token-ism.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Right, and you definitely-
Lisa Belisle: And that’s even worse!
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Right, and you definitely don’t want to do that. But I’ll just say the flip side of this, and just thinking about the structure of this publication. When I first moved to Maine, I spent years trying to read all the different magazines that were Maine-based, different publications and I know at one point, this publication came across my desk. I thought, “Wow, it’s glossy, it’s put together well, there are no people in it that reflect me, why the hell would I keep buying this?” Thinking about, well, if everybody who works here is white, then that impacts, to some degree, what you put out and continues that circle of never really being inclusive.
And then, thinking about well, why are there no people who are of color who work here, and probably a big part of it is when you think about how people are often hired, a lot of times it’s through friends, it’s through word of mouth. If everybody in our circles are always white, again, it becomes harder to bring on people of difference. That would probably be one reason that the publication really hasn’t shifted in terms of the racial demographics, or I would say the management would probably need to make a concerted effort and say, “You know what? We really want to be intentional about changing the demographics here, and that requires stretching a little bit in terms of…”
I’m sure there are plenty of well-qualified people of color to work at a publication. Just as a little side note, 23 years ago I worked at a magazine in Chicago, so I’ve actually worked on magazines. It was funny because at that time, even in Chicago, there weren’t that many people of color. But thinking again for me, what are our hiring practices? Do we create an environment that would feel welcoming, or do we expect the one person of color that we bring into our space to fit into our way of doing things without thinking about, is this a culture in a space that’s accepting and tolerant of all? I really hate to use the word “tolerant” because “tolerance” annoys me. We tolerate Brussels sprouts. In many cases, we don’t like them.
Lisa Belisle: If we’re in this place where we would like to have people who are black Americans or really any other type of race and just be more inclusive, but we’re still in Maine and we’re still trying to figure out how to be intentional and reach out to people, that’s not always easy.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: No, it’s not easy, and again, that’s why I often come back to the word “intentional” because honestly, you do have to be intentional and you are going to have to stretch and you are going to have to reach in terms of, “Okay, I’m going to have to put some effort into this.” We really are going to have to think about how to do this. You’re right. Otherwise, if you expect that it’s going to change without putting in extra energy, it’s not going to change.
Lisa Belisle: Let’s assume that we would like to be more inclusive, not only in the hiring, but also in the coverage that we have. We actually are actively trying to do this and be intentional. Do you have suggestions? How would you suggest that we go about being more inclusive?
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Well, one of the things that I would suggest, and I know there are other publications in the area that have reached out to me. I should probably mention, I am a contributor myself to the Portland Phoenix, but I know that in the past year or so, the Phoenix has really made an effort to bring on other writers of color. I think for over ten years I was the only writer of color, and now there are multiple writers of color. Even the writers themselves who are permanent, they are doing more work in terms of developing their own knowledge around anti-racism work.
I would say that’s a really big first step in terms of if an organization is committed to making that change, “Okay, maybe we need to do some work as an organization around creating an anti-racism lens through which we do our work.” In that case, I would say bring in an outside consultant, figure out, “Okay, let’s look at all of our hiring practices,” but also, let’s start with ourselves because ultimately every system is made up of people. We talk about criminal justice system or whatever. I always remind people, “But who’s in that system? Who makes the actual decisions? People.” Those are the people that you really have to affect. You have to get them to start having a shift in how they view the world.
I think once an organization makes that commitment, and it’s been fascinating to me in the past year, that in New England in general, more and more organizations that have always been predominantly white are starting to realize they do have to do that work. Typically, again, it does start with the conversations, it starts with definitely leadership taking the lead. It’s really hard to affect that kind of change from the bottom up. I think in order for it to really feel like the organization is committed, it has to come from the top down.
Lisa Belisle: I mean, what you’re talking about, I think, is important and I know that my daughter who’s in college who’s a senior, we have conversations about this. She talks about gender. Gender is her big focus. Obviously, she’s also white, so this is just the direction that she’s gone in. Even that is really difficult. It’s really hard to affect change and help people move their lens with regard to gender.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Right.
Lisa Belisle: We have plenty of women working at this magazine and we have plenty of women who are represented on its pages.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: But again, if you’re making that change, where is it starting from? Is it starting from the middle, is it starting from the bottom, or is the commitment starting from the top down, where everyone says, “Okay, let’s look at everything here. We’re going to look at the gender roles, look at everything in terms around gender. Where is it starting?” Really, I think, putting an intensive lens on it to say, “This is what we want to do.”
Lisa Belisle: What I’m getting from this is it’s not an easy fix. It’s work to be done and it’s intentional.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: This is a country … Well, I mean, when you think about this historically, this is a country that has never had a major dialogue on race. This is a country that still owes a lot to Native Americans and black folks in this country given our history, and we’ve never really acknowledged that. When you actually think about the civil rights movement, I think people have this really glossy sort of, “Oh, that happened so long ago.”
Last year it was interesting for me. I did a Ted Talk, and in preparing for my Ted Talk, I spent a lot of time talking to my father who grew up under Jim Crow in the South, and realizing that the last laws that were really taken off the books with regards to Jim Crow were taken off the books less than ten years before I was born in the late 1960s. We really aren’t that far along as a nation when it comes to dealing with race because you still have then the generational effects. My father grew up having to go to segregated high schools because it was illegal for him to go to an integrated high school. He grew up drinking from that colored water fountain. Then, when you look at other factors like the education piece, the economic piece, and you realize, “Wow, there’s still people grappling with that,” but yet, we’ve never had a dialogue beyond that as a nation.
We talk about it in how we teach our kids, “Well, we had the civil rights movement,” there was MLK … Which is always fascinating to me, because most people when they think about his words, they only look at the really pretty words, the ones that make people feel good. They don’t talk about the ones where he said white progressives are really not doing their job. Then we, of course, from the MLK days, we skip to what I call the Obama days and how we instantly wanted to label that post-racial. It’s like, “Oh my God! We’ve elected our first black president! We’re so beyond race.” But I would say the events of the past year-plus are showing us clearly we didn’t go beyond race because we went from our first black president to a man who doesn’t want to engage on a deeper level around race.
All of these things to me are just indicators of how much more work we actually have to do. Again, you live in Maine. It is, to some degree, easy to avoid that work, because it’s easy to go, “Well, there are no people of color. I don’t have any work to do.” But the thing is, the work doesn’t require people of color to be involved in the process at all. The work actually requires white people to start thinking critically around whiteness and thinking about “What does it mean to be white in this country?” I mean going beyond Peggy McIntosh’s checklist of “My White Privileges,” but to really think about “What has been bestowed upon me by virtue of my skin color, and how do I create equity and equality moving forward so that we can get out of this system?”
Lisa Belisle: Well, I’m glad that you are putting all this energy into it because I think it’s really important. Even if this is just the beginning of a dialogue that you and I are having about this, I hope people who are listening will think about themselves and also think about their own place within this larger structure that you have been describing.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: I think, and I will just … Because I give this resource to everyone and should mention she’s a colleague of mine and a collaborator. But, there is a fantastic book that any white person who hears this and is thinking, “I have no idea what this woman is talking about, I am not racist.” There’s a book by a writer by the name of Debbie Irving. The book’s called Waking Up White. Debbie is now in her 50s, yeah, Debbie’s in her 50s, but in her late 40s, she started a process of as she calls it, really waking up. She had grown up fairly wealthy, fairly privileged in New England. Never really thought about race, had done some work I think in Cambridge with communities of color, but never really felt connected.
Through a class that she ended up taking when she was in a graduate program, it really made her start to look at race critically and launched her into this whole journey of discovering herself and looking at race, but then looking more critically at the structures which uphold whiteness and racism in terms of housing and redlining in this country, and why so many people in this country live in racially segregated areas and understanding the role that the federal government played. Understanding that World War Two, what came out of World War Two was the creation of basically the white middle class. Well, why was only the white middle class created? Why was there not a black middle class created? In part because the black GIs often, when they came back to the States, were not able to take advantage of the benefits that had been promised to them in terms of being able to go to school in order to access the low interest loans. Everything that helped to create the white middle class did not create the black middle class, in part because the federal laws helped to uphold certain systems.
That’s the work I would say that white people need to do. When you understand that, it becomes easier to go a little bit deeper and to push a little bit harder and to really, as I call it, become a troublemaker.
Lisa Belisle: All right! Well, I will read that book.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Great!
Lisa Belisle: Yes. I’ve been speaking with Shay Stewart-Bouley, who is the executive director of Community Change, a nearly 50 year old anti-racism organization based in Boston that organizes and educates for racial equity with a specific focus on working with white people. She is also the creator of the well-known blog Black Girl in Maine. Thank you for having this conversation with me.
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Thank you for having me!
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is also brought to you by Aristelle, a lingerie boutique on Exchange Street in Portland’s Old Port, where every body is seen as a work of art and beauty is celebrated from the inside out. Shop with us in person or online at Aristelle.com
Lisa Belisle: Malcolm Gauld has been president of Hyde School, a private boarding school focused on character education, since 1998, and recently became executive chairman. Laura Gauld is now president of Hyde School, and she runs the school. Thanks for coming in today.
Laura Gauld: Thank you.
Malcolm Gauld: Thanks for having us.
Lisa Belisle: It probably goes without saying, but you are married to each other.
Laura Gauld: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Malcolm Gauld: Yes.
Laura Gauld: And parents.
Lisa Belisle: And parents of three children?
Laura Gauld: Three grown.
Lisa Belisle: Three grown children.
Laura Gauld: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: I’m interested in the work that you’ve been doing, really for multiple decades now with the Hyde School, because your school has become really known at least around the country, maybe around the world, for the type of education that it offers. It’s unique.
Laura Gauld: It’s very unique. Actually the original campus which is here in Bath, Maine, was founded by Malcolm’s father, Joseph Gauld, and that was a little over 50 years ago. He basically started with a hypothesis, if you focused on character, would achievement follow? That was what he set out to test. Then later, in the mid-’70s, we realized that if you want to reach the deepest part of kids, there’s two big influencers. You have the parents and you have the peer group. We were covering the peer group, but then we had to engage the parents.
Really, I would say the two big differentials at Hyde is character development, not just poster on the wall, but real character development, and then parent involvement. Parent engagement, parent growth as the most important role models for the students.
Lisa Belisle: How old are your children now?
Laura Gauld: Do you know or do you want me?
Malcolm Gauld: I know, I think!
Laura Gauld: Okay good, let’s test!
Malcolm Gauld: 27, 25, and 23.
Lisa Belisle: So as I was reading this book, The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have, which was published in 2001, written by both of you, and I was reading some older stories about, I believe, a daughter who was giving some difficulty at the age of four with potty training.
Laura Gauld: Oh yes, mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lisa Belisle: That was a few years ago, then.
Laura Gauld: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yes.
Malcolm Gauld: Many.
Laura Gauld: She was our feisty, take no prisoners, spirited child. Not to put labels, but she tend to do that. At 27, she is still feisty, take no prisoners, spirited, but I’ve learned along the day what to take hold of and what to let go of. Because I think where that potty training story was the beginning of my issue as her mother trying to control her. The more I tried to control her, the more difficult it got. What I learned going through this parent program and learning some of these things that we talk about was focus on myself. Not try to seek her love, and just let go of any guilt that you feel and just focus on what I needed to do.
Even today, I always preface … Even when she came home, I said … You know, something was going on, and I see that she’s got to deal with something, and I was like, “Would you like any input?” She was like, “Oh, I know what you’re going to say.” It’s like, “Okay, I don’t need to say it, honey. It’s your life.” Of course, when I let go, next thing you know, she’s like, “No, I do want to hear what you have to say.”
I think the essence of our kids when they’re born, the spirit of our kids is all unique. She tested me in a way that no other human being has ever tested me in my life. Not even my own mother. This child was put on this earth to help me be a better person, and I love her dearly.
Lisa Belisle: You weren’t entirely sure that you wanted to be a teacher. Is that right, Malcolm?
Malcolm Gauld: I thought I wanted to do it for a little while, a couple years, maybe. I started out in the late ’70s and I was, oh, I don’t know, going to go to law school or something like that. Then I think what happens to a lot of us teachers is I got hooked on it after a while. I did spend some time in the business world in my late 20s, but found that working with kids, I’m not looking at my watch, I’m not wondering what time it is. I found myself thoroughly engrossed in it, and so that’s what I’ve been doing now for 40 years.
Lisa Belisle: You started out at Hyde School also.
Malcolm Gauld: I went to Hyde School.
Lisa Belisle: You went to Hyde School before you went on to Bowdoin and then Harvard.
Malcolm Gauld: Yes. The joke in our family is Joe Gauld had to start a school so his son would have a place to go. I went there for four years myself and had a huge impact on me. I think many things are different today about the school, but the core is still the same. That is the focus on character development and unique purpose in life. Those two things together. Character is often viewed … It’s talked about a lot today in America, but it’s talked about I think as an end in itself, whereas we believe that it is the key to your destiny, and we need to develop our character if we’re going to be the special, unique person we were meant to be. I think that’s what we’re trying to do.
I mean, the whole time I’ve been an educator, for 40 years, I’ve heard about this thing called education reform, okay? I even remember my parents talking about it when I was a little kid. It makes you wonder, when does this thing actually kick in? When do we actually do this thing called reform? What we believe is that there’s a fundamental flaw in our schooling system in our country, and that flaw, we believe, is we care more about what they can do than about who they are, and they know it. I’m talking about the kids in America. We’re focused on what they can do. We’re not focused on who they are.
What we try to do at Hyde, I think what we were trying to do then and what we’re trying to do now is focus on who you are.
Laura Gauld: Right, and I think what we’ve found is if you get kids to focus on what they can control. There’s really only three things: their attitude, how much effort they put in, and their character. Most kids are going to do pretty well.
Malcolm Gauld: They’re going to also achieve.
Laura Gauld: They’re going to have achievement, and you know, achievement’s important. We don’t want our kids sitting on the couch and not showing up for life. But the overemphasis on achievement, and of course the biggest change I’ve seen is the parent involvement, the parent enmeshment, the parent desperately needing friendship with our kids.
You think on when we were raised, my stepfather had no interest in a relationship with me. He had his own friends. He didn’t want … He no more cared about whether or not we were having a conversation. He was raising me, and thank goodness. And yet, with our own kids, I got offtrack because I wanted a relationship with them. Then I see even more today.
The biggest change is how to help the parents. How to help the adults in this culture get back to … Giving them the help that they need. I also think we have a culture too, where unless you have a huge problem, you don’t ask for help. You’ve got to figure it out. Sometimes the people who really have the big problems, they sometimes get liberated because they get to ask for help.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve done a series of workshops called Biggest Job, and they’re all about parenting. One of the things that I was struck by was the raft experiment, where you created a raft made out of tape, I guess, on the floor, and then you asked someone to step on the raft and try to keep the raft balanced as if it were really in the water, and then you successively added more people to that raft as though they were part of a family, and asked people to observe what the dynamic was as you added more people to that. It really made me think about how, as a family, we can get pulled off course if we don’t understand that you can have one person on the raft who’s creating a lot of disturbance, and then you can have somebody else on the raft who’s doing most of the work to keep it balanced. That’s something that I don’t, as we become parents, we’re just trying to keep them alive at first, and then over time, sometimes we don’t even recognize that family dynamics have gotten distorted.
Laura Gauld: Right, and what we try to say in that exercise, it’s so … You’re right to pick that out, because that is such a visual for people, because everybody can relate to some role on that raft. But the point of that exercise is you’ve got to ask yourself, “What’s at the center of our family? Is it fuzziness? Is it confusion?” Because you’re often bringing different people together from different upbringings. Is it a person? If that person’s having a good day, we’re all having a good day. Or, is it a set of principles? What are your values? What are your go-to things? What are you all about?
What we learned is anytime we had … I’m thinking any time we had an issue with our kids, it was usually we’re not aligned with our principles. It really wasn’t the kids’ behavior. That was the alarm. The other thing that raft exercise shows … We ask kids and we ask adults, “How many of you have ever been at the center of the raft?” Lots of people play that role. Then you have the person you just add, and you say to them, “You take whatever role you feel you need to take and then you get out of the way.” A lot of times, there are kids in a family who are flying under the radar. They might be smoking pot, they’re just smoking it in the basement not out on the back porch, where the rebel is smoking it. Nobody’s challenging them because they might be achieving. They might be compliant.
Then you have the primary raft balancer, which was me, it’s a lot of moms. It’s not always the mom, so I don’t want to go gender here, but a lot of times it is. It was me. I was the primary raft balancer, and in some ways, I pushed my husband out, and then I had to realize, “Wait a minute. We’re not even working as a team. I’m upset with him for not stepping up, but I’ve given him no place to step up.”
The raft is a great way for everybody to say, “All right. Where are we? Where do we want to go? What shifts do we all have to make?” Because at the end of the day, when you make a shift … You can never fix a person in your family, but when you make a shift, you create an opening.
Malcolm Gauld: I’d also add that one thing I’ve noticed over the last 40 years is the line of who’s responsible for what has really maybe never been as blurred as it is now. I’ll give you an example. I remember it was around this time of my senior year in high school when we were having dinner at home one night, and my mother turned to me and said, “So what are you doing about that college thing, anyway?” I outlined that I was looking at some schools, and I even picked a … I picked a strategy where I applied to four really competitive schools where I could have easily been rejected at all of them, and my mother heard my strategy and she said, “Well, that doesn’t sound like a very good strategy. You ought to have some fallbacks, and you ought to …” She threw in.
But she also said, “But it’s your life, good luck.” I don’t know many parents today that handle it that way. The parents are very engaged, right into helping write the essay and making … There is an engagement that I don’t think is right, and I think it went from being too much my problem to the parent owning way too much of it. I think that’s maybe a metaphor for a lot of what we’re seeing now, and I think that raft exercise can help sort that out too, of who’s responsible for what.
Lisa Belisle: I think it can be hard if you are the parent who is maybe giving your child more responsibility to see that you’re a little bit alone in this when you look around and all the other parents are hiring college coaches and they’re taking their kid to 20 different schools around the country starting their sophomore year. As a parent and even as a child who’s observing this, it can be hard to stand your ground, somewhat.
Laura Gauld: Well, you’ve, again, you think about when we had the neighborhood growing up. There were lots of norms that some of them were just … They were unspoken norms, but they were norms. If you were out of line, any parent could discipline you. You accepted that, you knew your parents would do that. I know when we raised our kids, even in Maine, small town, there were people who were like, “Don’t talk to my kid.” We tried to set the example, but there is a little bit, you’re right, this fear in the achievement race that if you let go and step back, your child may lose their place in line.
What is part of my mission in life is really more than even working at a school. It’s helping parents realize that the greatest gift you can give your kids is to let go of the achievement and focus on the character. Set an example of always reinventing yourself, always growing, always changing. Then you can sit back. It doesn’t mean the problems go away, but I feel like now we’re getting some of the payback as our grown kids, they’re no longer kids, but they’re always going to be my kids, are adults. I am so proud of them. They have issues. They have successes, they have failures. They’re not my trophy case, they belong to them. I get to now, luckily they want us in their lives, and that’s a wonderful thing.
We had to, like you say, you have to roll that dice. I’ve seen people where, kids that were pushed on the achievement track, and they got into the great schools, and they fell apart down the road of life because they never knew how to fail. They never took a risk. Again, we still try to help those people because we say, “Hey, you’re a great person and you’re failing, so what are you going to do? Pick yourself up, deal with it.” But you’re absolutely right.
We have to put the weight of our foot somewhere as a society, and you even see what’s going on today with the sexual harassment and all that. I think as a culture, maybe we are seeing, “Let’s look at this through the character lens, not the political lens.” Well, I think it’s the same thing as parenting. Let’s view our kids through the character lens, and if we do that, especially if you have high expectations, your kids are going to achieve. The great thing about their achievements is they won’t be achievements you did that they never really get the confidence from. Because, as Mal said, you paved the way. You called that school. You got them in there. You wrote the excuse. You minimized that. They’re not going to feel, they’re not going to have the great confidence that comes from that achievement if it’s not theirs.
Lisa Belisle: One of the stories that you told, Malcolm, was about a soccer team that you were the coach of. It was a group of girls who weren’t really taking themselves seriously. They weren’t winning any games, but that wasn’t even the problem. The problem was that they weren’t showing up in their scrimmage outfits, their practice outfits. They were bringing their purses and the makeup and there was a lot of, I guess, inattention to the reason why they were on a soccer team. And so rather than preach at them, you just said, “Listen. This is a soccer team. We’re going to act like a soccer team.” It’s almost like an “act as if.” Maybe you’re not going to win, it’s completely fine.
Malcolm Gauld: Move the body and the mind will follow a little bit, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Exactly. Then by maybe the second season, they were actually asking for additional opportunities to do winter soccer, and they were actually starting to win. You weren’t browbeating them. It wasn’t about your ego and whether they won or not. It was make it possible for them to engage in the behavior that might lead them to success, which is important.
Malcolm Gauld: Well, and I had been an athlete and played sports in college and had taken it very seriously. It was a big part of my life, and so here I had these kids who weren’t looking at it that way. I had coached kids who were, so I had had that too. I think one of the things we do at Hyde that’s unique is we like to say that we don’t have extracurricular activities, everything’s cocurricular. Everybody does academics, everyone does athletics, everyone does performing arts and community service. We test ourselves in a wide variety of ways. You’re going to probably do some things you’re good at, you’re going to do some things you’re not good at. Everyone’s going to see you do both.
First, we don’t look at something like soccer as an add-on, as an extracurricular activity. We view it, that’s a character-building opportunity. That’s what we did there. It wasn’t … I mean, winning is fun and we like to do that, but we’re going to … Let’s be the best we can be. Let’s be the best soccer team we can be, with what we have. That first season, that meant zero wins and eight losses, and I remember we scored a goal around the fourth game and the kids were jumping up and down like we’d won the Superbowl or something.
It taught me something about, that you take the kids where they are, and I think, and build from there. I think that’s true in academics, too. I mean, one of the things that I like to do is I’ll often run a school meeting where I’ll ask the question, “How many of you have been told that you’re bright kids who don’t apply yourself?” Every hand goes up. I like to tweak them a little bit and go, “Well, sorry to tell you, but it’s not true.” They go, “What do you mean?” I go, “Some of you aren’t bright. I’m not going to name any names, but.”
That’s the way we look at it in this country and we’ve done that that way for a while. Our first priority is how bright the person is or how bright the person is not, and we generally don’t even talk about that. If someone’s not bright, we just don’t tell them. But, what we try to do is forget about that, let’s just work hard and see what happens. Let’s put the effort first, rather than how …
The thing that’s encouraging is so many people out there, like Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck and Paul Tuff are kind of coming around to that idea. As Carol Dweck says, if you praise kids for working hard, they’ll work hard in tough times and try to rise to the top. If you praise them for being bright, they will avoid challenges where they don’t look good because they want you to say that to them and they’ll think that if they don’t do well, they’re not bright. It’s encouraging, actually, to see our culture maybe coming around to that.
Lisa Belisle: I completely agree with this idea that we are focusing so much on achievement and external things being motivators for kids, whether it’s getting into the right college, whether it’s winning the right championship, whether it’s scoring the right scores on your SATs. Specifically, I think about kids in high school athletics. You’re on this track for such a long time, and then I will often see as patients people who have, they’ve reached the end of the road, and there’s nothing external to achieve anymore. There’s a sense of emptiness, and some people even get very depressed about it. By setting people up with a certain structure when they’re younger, you’re really putting them at a disadvantage when they’re older.
Malcolm Gauld: An example that I’d give on that, this is maybe one of my latest harangues, maybe, is I’ve had a lifelong love of athletics. I still play, we call it geezer lacrosse and old man basketball and stuff like that. Here I am, in my 60s, and looking back over my athletic life, most of the athletics I played were on a field unsupervised by adults. There was a ball out there and you picked up teams, you settled disputes, it was not adult-controlled. And now, the athletes that I see, including our own children who were involved in this, very much travel teams, adult-controlled. The adults determine the playing time. At the end, I don’t know if they’re going to love it as much, if they don’t have that experience. Maybe we’re doing a little too much of that, not just in athletics, but in other endeavors as well.
Laura Gauld: I think I would add to that that, like anything, whether it’s sports, whether your achievements came through music or through an academic field, at the end of the day, if you don’t have the great confidence in yourself, if you’re getting your confidence from some exterior decision, you think … You have to help people, teach them to be lifelong learners. Yeah, it’s tough. You’re no longer an elite athlete, or you’re no longer at the top of your game here. But I think we’ve always tried to encourage the adults in our communities, the parents and the teachers. We’re doing character here, so you’ve got to keep working on your unique potential. You have to keep changing.
We just had an in-service day with all of the adults, and the whole focus was challenging each other to where do you need to reinvent yourself. Where are you feeling stale? Why are we doing that? We’re doing that to be role models for the kids. In fact, you end up … Like you say, there’s always juncture points in your life. It’s hard when your kids don’t need you anymore. It’s hard when they go to their first job, when you realize, “That’s it!” Yeah, you’ve got to cry a little, and then you’ve got to pick yourself up, you’ve got to reinvent yourself, and you’ve got to move to the next thing.
I think you have a better chance of doing that if you’ve experienced the joys of some failure and some struggle, as well as … It’s wonderful to win championships and succeed, but those girls on that team, and I remember, because we were young teachers back then. Those girls on that team continue to talk about that season because they reinvented themselves as athletes. Some of them went on to play in college. Others didn’t, but they looked back on that. That was a benchmark for them.
Lisa Belisle: There’s a … I think it was a set of nine different things that you had talked-
Laura Gauld: Ten.
Lisa Belisle: Ten different things … That makes more sense, I guess. Ten is a more even number … That you talked about over the course of the book. One of the biggest ones was harmony versus truth, which I think is very important, because we have gotten into this strange society of niceness and wanting everything to be good and happy. That really has put us in a weird place, I think, as a culture. It does this in families as well.
Laura Gauld: That priority is number one. It’s truth over harmony. It’s trying to remind all of us at the end of the day, you put the weight of your foot in being truthful over the harmony. It’s, I think, the most important thing, and not just as a family, but in an organization and a school, a company. I will go back to a school, though, and a family. What happens is the kids don’t want to tell us the truth, and then as adults, we don’t want to know the truth. We say we want to know the truth, and we say, “Truth is the most important thing, this is the only thing, we’ll spank you.” We said all that.
But at the end of the day, the truth screws you up and the truth gets in the way of your plans, and then you’ve got to stop, drop, and deal, and then you’ve got to look like a circus act with the local town. We had all those things, where I’m like, “Oh my gosh, it’s blowing up in the restaurant. We wrote a book on parenting. Should we just dampen this down?” You have to then say, “Screw it.” Liberate yourself. It’s the same thing in an organization. I know almost on a daily basis when I deal with my colleagues, there’s always a thing in my head, “Okay, how honest are we going to be here? Are we going full honesty? Full frontal honesty? Or are we going to just go harmony here?”
Again, it’s not like you walk around telling everybody the truth, because that’s not a great-
Malcolm Gauld: It’s not truth instead of harmony.
Laura Gauld: That’s not a good thing in an organization, always.
Malcolm Gauld: Just over.
Laura Gauld: But you’re aware, at the end of the day. One of the things we have in the Hyde Organization with the adults is we are going to strive to put truth over harmony. So, if that appeals to you, if that appeals to you as an adult, we’re excited to have you here. If that’s something that you don’t really want to be a part of, that’s okay too. It’s just, this is our culture. And again, in our family, we try to say, “At the end of the day, guys, this is what we do. Even when it screws things up.”
Lisa Belisle: Well, I look forward to your next book or books. It sounds like there’s a few in the works, so we’ll see. Whenever those are out, I’ll make sure that I have a chance to read them. Good luck with those.
Laura Gauld: Great, thank you.
Malcolm Gauld: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Malcolm Gauld, who has been president of the Hyde School, a private boarding school focused on character education since 1998 and recently became executive chairman, and Laura Gauld, who is now the president of Hyde School and runs the school. They’re married with three children. Congratulations on successfully bringing them to adulthood.
Malcolm Gauld: Thanks!
Lisa Belisle: Thank you for all of the hard work that you’re doing in the state of Maine and being here today.
Laura Gauld: Great, thank you.
Malcolm Gauld: Thanks for having us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest, and is located in the heart of the Old Port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space, including Ingen Jorgenson, Brenda Serione, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy, and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at ArtCollectorMaine.com.
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This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life.
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Transcription of Love Maine Radio #327: Rob Whitten + Todd Richardson and Russ Doucette + Teresa Simpson
Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com.
Dr Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to Love Maine Radio show number 327 airing for the first time on Sunday December 24, 2017. Today we feature two sets of individuals who offer great examples of collaboration across working disciplines. Our guests are Rob Whitten of Whitten Architects, and landscape architect Todd Richardson of Richardson and Associates, and Russ Doucette of Russ Doucette Custom Home Builders, and Teresa Simpson of Midcoast Home Designs. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest, and is located in the heart of the Old Port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in it’s newly expanded space, including Ingunn Joergensen, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at artcollectormaine.com.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Rob Whitten is the founder of Whitten Architects a residential architecture firm based in Portland, and Todd Richardson a landscape architect, is the owner of Richardson and Associates in Saco. Thanks for coming in today.
Rob Whitten: Thank you.
Todd Richardson: Thanks for having us.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Rob, you and I have had a conversation over to you before, but on the radio.
Rob Whitten: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr Lisa Belisle: Todd, you and I have just met. You have both been working together on some interesting projects I hear.
Todd Richardson: Yes.
Dr Lisa Belisle: And that’s why we wanted you to come in today, is to really talk about the collaboration between the types of work that each of you are doing to create nice spaces for people. So how did you come to start working with one another.
Rob Whitten: You know I’ve been looking for a landscape architect that was a complement to our residential practice. Someone that really understood the sort of Maine vernacular, the Maine tradition and what made Maine have a special sense of place. And someone said, you should talk to this guy Todd. So I did, and we started collaborating on a project and … 10, 12 years ago Todd?
Todd Richardson: Yeah, at least.
Rob Whitten: Yeah, so when the subject was collaboration, the first person that came to mind was you. I said great, here’s a guy that can finish my sentence. Perfect, you know?
Dr Lisa Belisle: Well that is good. And I’m not sure everybody … I think people understand what an architect might do. Todd, tell us, what does a landscape architect do?
Todd Richardson: Yeah, that’s a great question, a lot of people do not understand what we do. The joke in the profession is that we all drive green trucks, but that’s obviously not the case, although I do have a truck.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Is it green?
Todd Richardson: It’s not green.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Oh.
Todd Richardson: But anyway, I think the analogy that could be used is you know, Rob’s role as an architect is to design a building. My role as a landscape architect is to design a landscape. So that’s the level of work that we do, is focused on design. And we certainly develop construction drawings and have construction administration associated with what we do. But I think like an architect who would design a building, we would design a landscape, and those landscapes could be of various types. The common work that Rob and I share is focused on our residential work for sure.
Rob Whitten: Yeah. And I like bringing Todd in as early as I can. So oftentimes a potential client will reach out to us and we’ll explain that we would like to meet them on the site they’re considering, because that means as much to us in many respects as their program of spatial needs, and it can also really define the type of house they’re looking for. And ideally, Todd can be part of that initial meeting. Because we read a landscape one way, Todd reads it another. I value his input. There’s assets and there’s liabilities to every site and every project, and so the trick is to turn those liabilities into assets if possible, and I think Todd’s really wonderful at that.
Dr Lisa Belisle: So describe what would a liability and an asset of … I guess there’s two possibly separate things, but what would that mean?
Todd Richardson: Yeah, I think that the dollop of optimism that Rob talks about where a constraint might be turned into an opportunity I think is really the frame that you … how you view it I guess. And so for us, getting on a site early, and I think Rob hit a point that I think is really valuable in the work that we do together, that it starts early. It’s not something where we would come in at the tail end of a project, and there would be a couple issues that the architects may be asking us to address. I think with the work that we do with Whitten Architects, it’s terrific in that the conversation starts early and it starts at the conceptual level, and often that’s paired with visiting the site together and often that’s without clients which has its benefits, both do. But I think it’s great to get on the site with Rob to talk about what we’re seeing, and what things really strike us as drivers for a particular project, what are the opportunities?
You know, constraints can be many. I think that sites are more and more challenging that can align with regulatory constraints as an example, setbacks or critical resources that obviously need to be respected. Other examples might be run-off or drainage, or steep slopes that begin to put some building blocks around where you might not choose the site to have us. But I think that we take those in light of where the real opportunities are and we gravitate the project to the place on the site where we can find the most opportunities and make the most of the project.
Rob Whitten: Yeah, oftentimes as we approach a site … I love Google Earth because it gives us great overview, so you see it from a mile up and you see big patterns, and you see big relationships. And you can really see it in a very macro way. Thanks to doing this for a number of years, I can kind of read that landscape and that site and get a feel for it. The other thing that happens oftentimes is, Maine is over 300 years old. The good sites got picked early. And first comers get choice. So if you’re dealing with a new site today, it’s been passed over probably many times. And so whether you have to be more creative and more inventive to make that site really work for the family whose home you’re designing.
And I think that again, plays right into landscape. So it could have unstable coastal bluffs, it could have wetlands, it could have soils problems that are creating other issues. So it’s exposure could be bad. Now it’s a northwest slope, and the best slope is southeast. Okay, how we design for that? You know, how do we work with that? So with the views to the northwest I want a house that’s long and narrow so the sun’s on your back as you’re looking at the view. I mean it’s just … and again, playing with that. And I really love … because Todd will have a grade problem, and it’ll be like, oh here’s an opportunity, we can manage the grade with a series of subtle manipulations.
Whether it’s … Todd loves bringing in large native boulders and they just become part of the landscape. And it’s like they’ve always been there. One of our sites that we worked on together was a pond that was so pristine, it was a trout hatchery. And we had fairly big interventions on that site. At the end of the day, it looks like it always had been just like that. So it’s kind of fun to think about.
Dr Lisa Belisle: So an intervention I’m assuming is something that disrupts the things-
Todd Richardson: Dynamite.
Dr Lisa Belisle: That’s pretty interventionous, right? So how Todd would you keep something like that pristine pond intact so that the people who are going to move into a house on that site can enjoy it, and like creatures that are using the pond already don’t stop enjoying it.
Todd Richardson: Yeah, I think that begins with the conversations that we might have earlier on in the process where we identify it as a real asset. And then I think the extent to which one goes to preserve or conserve that I think becomes how we begin to talk not only amongst ourselves, but with a client as well. Because part of the role from the beginning moving forward, is educating our clients as to what some of those values are and beginning to paint a vision for a project that puts value in protecting the pond, or boulder, or cluster of trees which truth be told, would be easier to take down or to roll over to do that.
And I think what we’re able to do is talk at the ground level about what will make this project great. And I think that one of the things that Rob and I focus on collectively and collaboratively is, many times, is the things that you preserve and that you reveal that ultimately make the project. I mean there’s certainly some things that are brought to the project, how about a house and some landscape. But I think fundamentally it starts with some of the core things that are pivotal in the project, some existing condition that really inspires the direction for the project. And when we get excited about that and started thinking about ways to design with that, not against that, but with that, and then fold our client into the process. I think that’s where some of the magic takes place.
Rob Whitten: Yeah, and it is fun to as I say have this overview, this Google view, the mile view, mile high view. And then to have identified perhaps some things that will influence the design of the house or the landscape. And then to have that information in hand, and then go visit the site for the first time. This is really kind of like … there’s always a revelation like, “Oh, that’s a cranberry bog, cool.” You know that means wonderful color, wonderful fruit, wonderful bird life. It also means it’s a wetland. So we understand that. But again, it can become this great asset where as perhaps an unsympathetic person could say, “Why it’s just a swamp.” But no, it’s a wonderful resource. And so we really enjoy things like that. The other thing is to try to visit the site with Todd, but also to visit it with a client so you can see the site through their eyes. You can see what they saw, why they’re buying it, what it means to them, or if there are some things that they’re particularly focused on.
And oftentimes it’s helping educate a client so you could say, “What part of the site do you really like? What’s the best part of the site for you? Is this why you bought it?” And then you say, “Well then let’s not put the house right on top of it. Let’s let it be beside the house. So it’s still the best part of the site, and the house gets to share it.” And there’s this real synergy now between the house and the landscape. And I think when that starts to work together… we’ve recently done a project in a pretty well established coastal community and there was an older home that wasn’t a good fit. It didn’t serve the family very well. It didn’t have good inside/outside living spaces, in a principally a summer recreational community. And when we all finished, I’d like to have a house that fits, it respects it’s context, it really feels like it has been there, and everybody’s enjoying the outside living there. I mean, it’s always fun when you go to a house and it’s under construction and you say, “So where did the guys have their lunch?”
They get to pick. They get to pick the room with the nice view, with the nice sun, with the nice exposure. So it’s always kind of fun. It’s very telling. You know, it’s like where does the dog lie in the sun? Okay, right there. I think that kind of information you get somehow from nature, really influences the way we make a lot of design decisions.
Dr Lisa Belisle: I remember having a conversation about the sun and how you can never really know the way that the sun is going to be in the building until you live in a place for a full year. So I mean that’s very much a inside/outside element. How do you design around something that you won’t be able to actually experience, but is clearly very important to the people who are going to live in that structure?
Todd Richardson: Yeah I would answer that by saying, there is some ways, techniques, to understand generally what the sun might be telling us about morning light, midday light and afternoon light. I think that, Rob, I think it was you that said people are drawn to the light in the home and outside. And I think that’s important. I think it’s maybe as important or more important for people that cherish Maine and come to Maine because they really like the outdoors, many of them. So I think really understanding what is the south aspect, what’s the early morning light, and then designing kind of a reciprocity between indoor and outdoor spaces, so that their living can flow seamlessly inside and outside.
I think that’s an interesting way that Rob and I have often talked about the work that we do, and that is less about the divisions between architecture and landscape. I mean Rob’s a terrific architect, I’m a landscape architect, we have our roles and responsibilities in a project. But I think sort of eroding some of those differences and really focusing on some of the commonalities really makes a lot of sense early on in the project. So we’re thinking more holistically about a place and the qualities of the place. So the light to which you refer, I think is not an architecture conversation or a landscape conversation, it’s really born out of a conversation that says, “How do we want to collectively maximize our client’s opportunity to really relish and enjoy the sun here?” So where the entrances are, where indoor/outdoor living and eating might occur are a couple ways in which we would focus on that.
Rob Whitten: We really think about it from the very beginning. And we actually on every project, all our work is site specific. We show the client in the very beginning a site plan showing where the prevailing breezes are, here come the tropic storms that are going to hit here in March and November that come from the east, they’re loaded with moisture, they come from the northeast, the prevailing summer breezes are southwest. The big polar highs in the winter are coming out of the northwest, and they’re cold and they’re dry. So it’s just getting them to think that they bought a piece of nature, and now we have to design a house that works with nature. And also we love the Maine precedent, the vernacular precedent. All of Maine was off the grid until 1900 let’s say. So how they use their resources, how they use the sun, how they organize their day, how they organize their workspace, where their families lived.
There’s a lot to be learned from that. So we like that precedent. And so the house has a bigger allegiance to the sun than a road for example. I mean the sun is really fundamental. Ideally if you’re warm, dry and comfortable, and your health is good, you have a sustainable house. And the sun is a huge player in that. So we think about that a lot. I mean that’s number one for us. It’s kind of funny, here we are almost at 44 degrees north latitude, that’s a huge player. I mean that’s … and if someone coming from away, you kind of have to educate them about that. So it’s just, again, I like that process. I like having bigger forces help us make decisions. Because they’ll be right at the end of the day.
Dr Lisa Belisle: As you’re talking about this, I’m almost getting the sense of the house on the landscape as being it’s own, I don’t want to say creature, but entity being?
Rob Whitten: Oh it is, absolutely.
Dr Lisa Belisle: And more of a living thing versus like a structure.
Rob Whitten: Yeah, oh absolutely. So you can bring nature in and … so also man has a pretty grim climate many times a year. So we have to protect you from it. But when it’s nice, it’s got to be accessible, you’ve got to get out into it. So it does have a dynamic quality, it is like an animal in a sense, it makes changes. And the other thing is you work with your building forms, you can start to create these little micro climates. So here’s this little sun pocket, here’s the barn or the garage that’s protecting you from that north wind. You just play with all those elements. And you end up as I say, with a happier, better place to live, that’s really what it amounts to.
Dr Lisa Belisle: I know you’ve had some recent projects and some that Maine Home Design has been particularly interested in that you’ve worked on together. Tell me about one of your favorites that you’ve worked on and what that process was like for you.
Todd Richardson: I can talk to this, Berwick Retreat, I think that for me, that’s a really great project that was meaningful from a number of perspectives I think, and I’ll talk to the collaboration as being one of those. But I think also, just an outstanding site and a terrific client, I think that was the sort of trifecta if you will there. But one of the aspects of that project that was terrific on this end, was the call that Rob placed to me early when his office was on board with the project and we began to get on board, and Rob said, “Could you come up to the office? We’re going to do this, where everyone in the office is going to participate in thinking about this project and putting some ideas out as a way to generate a departure point for the conversation and we’d like you to be a part of that.” And it was just a memorable morning or afternoon, I forget what it was, where Rob’s office really to me demonstrated a clear understanding of site and building, and the relationships between the two.
And it was an open forum for me to contribute to the work that they were doing and help sow some seeds early on in the process. So the beginning of that project was I think fundamental to the outcome of that project to be honest with you. I think it was the early days that the collaboration really began to talk about the direction and the vision of how the building and the site would become kind of synonymous with each other. And I think that worked tirelessly to every detail including materials that started on the inside and moved right to the outside, and walls that literally slid away so that the landscape would flow through the house. So I think there’s a couple exemplary outcomes that I really think were talked about not from day one, but in the early part of the process. So that was a really great one for me.
Rob Whitten: Yeah, and it was a really significant project. But at the same time, both of us together took on … Russ Tyson works closely with me in my office and he was project architect on that. But it was a house on a lake in Maine, in western Maine. And it was a totally unsympathetic, what shall I say, uninspired vinyl clad house, and they just destroyed the landscape. And our client approached us and said, “I want to make it different,” and we stepped up and did that in terms of design of the house. But most of all, it was taunts for a mediating really of a landscape that could have been lovely once, but boy when we got there it was just run-off right to the lake, no features at all, really hostile. You couldn’t be out in that landscape because it was … particularly in the summer, because it just was bright and sunny, and you felt very exposed. And by the end, unsolicited we got … Todd’s office received an award from the Lakes Commission for doing all the right things.
Todd Richardson: Yeah, that project was really interesting in terms of the client standing in front of the house early on and saying, “You know this just doesn’t fit. How can we make this fit?” I mean look at the context here and what we’re looking at. And I think that Rob’s office really worked hard to transform quite honestly almost a suburban character home-
Rob Whitten: It was, yeah.
Todd Richardson: … It was on a beautiful lakeside into … just a tremendous lakeside cottage, and our mandate was to integrate it and make it fit. So we used a lot of native plants, we addressed some of the run-off challenges which being right on the lakes edge, to think of what was happening and how that could change. We were really excited about that, and we had the support of the client and wove together a lot of aspects of the indoor/outdoor living. So I think we … that house did a 180 overall and the landscape followed.
Rob Whitten: Yeah exactly, so it was a complete turnaround. The other thing that as yet unacknowledged, is the collaboration we get with both the builders and the installers. And again, there’s a wonderful sense of Maine craft. We’re fortunate in that we don’t have to tell them how to do it right. Inherently I think they want to do it right. And if your budget is sufficient they can do it right. And we will be advocates for doing it right. We’re not disappointed. And I think there’s a sense of pride, and there’s a sense of continuity. The other thing that we both are fortunate, we tend to work on what I’ll call sustainable projects, because they are going to stay with this family for a long period of time.
It’s not a short cycle, it’s not a five year cycle, it’s a 30 year cycle, or it’s the next generation. So it’s really fun to plan and think that way. And it’s also fun to watch Todd’s landscapes mature, and it’s fun to watch our houses age a little bit. When we photograph them for the magazine, we don’t photograph them day one, we like to give them a year, you know, let them get seasoned, let them become assimilated, let them become part of Maine. Then there’s something special that goes on. And it’s always … again, it’s that sense of time is an important continuum here.
Todd Richardson: I’d like to echo something that Rob said that I think is really fundamental, and that is, we’re having a conversation with two principles of two offices, but as Rob eluded to I think the notion of collaboration extends beyond Rob and I. I think both our offices fundamentally operate that way and benefit from that process. But to Rob’s point about how contractors and owners, if a team of collaborators is broader and they really understand not just the content but the intent of what the project is, I think that it serves the project really well. And I think I can speak for both of us really trying to nurture that sense of the more holistic team collaborating and I don’t know if that’s selfish or not, but I think the outcome is far better when you get people that really understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. And I think we’ve seen terrific results working with builders, and craftsmen, and suppliers, and our own staff in our offices to make that all come together. So I think that’s collaboration with a capital C I think.
Rob Whitten: Yeah. And the sense of place can really be reinforced by the materials you use and how you use them. And I think Maine has an abundant supply of stone and wood, and accustomed to work with the products. It’s fun, it’s really fun. And I think what’s exciting for us now is the pallet has grown. There’s more and more materials to work with and is better performing, more sustainable, more durable materials to work with. I think that it’s a very exciting time quite honestly to be an architect.
Dr Lisa Belisle: How about you Rob, do you have any particular favorite projects that you’ve worked on with Todd that you can think of as being exemplary?
Rob Whitten: Well it’s always the next project you know, that’s the optimism that drives us all. I do, but they’re all very, very different you know? I think it’s the seamlessness between Todd has an ability to understand the architectural intent and his responses really reinforce what we’re designing. So whether it’s Grady’s Lake, or Spurwink Retreat or a recently completed project up in Yarmouth, they fit, they belong. I think at the end, also to sort of have the owner say, “Gee, I didn’t know where you guys were going,” perhaps, we like to think we’re good communicators, we’d like to think they know where they’re going. But at the end, they’re always pleased, they’re always really pleased where we are. And the result is they do own these houses for a long period of time. They really enjoy, they really settle in, they really fit. So it’s the fit, the collaboration that’s important.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Do you think that we went through a time where we were more thinking of ourselves as protecting ourselves from the elements? Where we were building houses so it’s just sort of a protection against the storm.
Rob Whitten: Yeah, us and them?
Dr Lisa Belisle: Exactly. Exactly. Because the way you’re describing it, it seems like a more natural back and forth. But I’ve lived in many houses … well actually I haven’t lived in that many of them because I can’t stand to be in that space too long. But I’ve been in industrial spaces where it’s like, “We have to put these walls here because there’s scary stuff on the outside of them, so we have to protect ourselves.”
Rob Whitten: Yeah, to a certain extent, if someone has an attitude like what your describing, they wouldn’t be attracted to our work. So there is a little bit of a self-selection that goes on here. But I do think the materials are better. I think we can do a better job of making you warm, dry and healthy in a house today, than we could 20 years ago, 5 years ago. Just because it’s gotten more sophisticated. I think people are thinking differently about how they live in houses. I think they are thinking about their relationship with a house, and so the main climate is an enemy, because we have better materials and better ways of designing, it’s not quite as much of an enemy. We can co-exist better today, don’t you think Todd?
Todd Richardson: Yeah, I don’t know.
Rob Whitten: At least if we’ve made the right decisions, you and I have made the right decisions and it’s been carried through.
Todd Richardson: I don’t know if this is a subjective opinion about this, but I feel that in Maine we have unique clients. And I think that at the end of the day, they’re looking for something that really brings meaning to them and their family, and connects them to place. And that’s through the terrific architecture and the way that the site works. I talked to colleagues outside of Maine, and I’m continually reminded that, “Wow that’s different, it’s different in Maine,” and I just think that the people that come to Rob and my offices are really soulful about the way that they appreciate what Maine is and what makes Maine distinctive. I think of this, that your magazine, you know this, but I think that translates into architecture and landscape architecture and the ways those two can perform together. It’s really, what’s the there there? And why are people coming to Maine and choosing to develop a property.
And a lot of things matter. I think the quality of the materials, the exposure. I think all those are significantly important. But I think at the end of the day those are contributors to that connection to the place that I think people are really longing for and yearning for when they decide to come to Maine and decide to stay in Maine. So I think that’s a fun part of what we do, is from the get-go those clients are keenly interested in some things that we’re passionate about and think we do well together.
Rob Whitten: The Spurwink Retreat project that Todd mentioned, there was a house on that site, and it was a big site. But we were limited to a building envelope that came with the property. Again, there’s a constraint. So it was, “How can we make the best use of this portion that we’re working in?” And our client had said that all the other houses he’d looked at, and the house he was buying, seemed to get in the way. In other words, it was an obstacle. It didn’t protect him, but it was a barrier to his being able to reach out into the landscape. And so his early charge to us was, “I want to feel like I’m connected to the landscape.” And I’d like to think that’s why the house is such a success. We had a sympathic owner, he was very clear in his wants. He’s a very good communicator. And we provided it.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Well I’m fascinated by this topic, and I could really keep talking about it forever and ever, because I think there’s a lot of crossover between the way that I look at human beings and their relationships with one another in my medical practice. And the way that you’re talking about people’s relationships with the way that they live their lives, I encourage people to read more about your projects in Maine Home and Design, and hopefully I can give you guys a call if they’re feeling like they were equally soulful as homeowners, home builders. I’ve been speaking with Rob Whitten who is the founder of Whitten Architects, a residential architectural firm based in Portland, and Todd Richardson, a landscape architect, who is the owner of Richardson and Associates in Saco. Thank you so much for the work that you’re doing.
Rob Whitten: Thank you.
Dr Lisa Belisle: And I appreciate the time that you have come in today.
Todd Richardson: Thanks.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Yep. Our pleasure.
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Dr Lisa Belisle: Russ Doucette is the owner of Russ Doucette Custom Home Builders in Scarborough, and Teresa Simpson is the owner of Midcoast Home Designs in Wiscasset. Thanks for coming in today.
Russ Doucette: Thank you.
Teresa Simpson: Thank you for having us.
Dr Lisa Belisle: So one I’m using Scarborough, one I’m using Wiscasset, but from what I’m understanding you actually do quite a bit of work together.
Teresa Simpson: Yeah, I’m lucky enough to be able to work under Mr. Doucette here. I think we collaborated a few years ago on a project in [inaudible 00:30:19] when we got to first meet.
Russ Doucette: Correct.
Teresa Simpson: It’s about three years ago?
Russ Doucette: Roughly three years ago. I had started off with a client and felt that it was best that they go find a true architect. And they did, and they found Teresa which was actually a Godsend for me.
Teresa Simpson: Thanks.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Well tell me about that. So tell me what is the benefit … well first of all, I guess I should get a little bit of background from each of you for people who are listening who don’t know you, as to what each of you do as individuals.
Teresa Simpson: Well I, let’s see, I’ve been a home designer, let’s see, since 1988. I actually started designing homes for my family when I was actually in high school. So I put myself through college, through engineering school, and then I started my own business really in a small little town working outside of the perimeters of my family and subbing out to contractors. At some point I had actually heard of Russ Doucette Builders, but I hadn’t made it down to the Portland area. I was just working in the Midcoast Brunswick, Freeport area. And then later on as my family started to retire and contractors were getting more busy, I started advertising and then lo and behold, 20 some odd years later I get to finally meet Russ Doucette in person. And from there we’ve collaborated on quite a few projects, now that I’m more in the Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Saco area. So that’s a little bit about my background.
Russ Doucette: A little bit about mine, I come from a little town up north in Van Buren and moved here on the 4th of July of ’76. And this was shortly after I had graduated from the University of Presque Isle Vocational School. While I was here, I started doing carpentry work, it’s what I went to school for. As time progressed I knew that I just didn’t want to be a regular carpenter, so I was looking to start my own business. And at the time I was working for a company, Dartmouth Company in Portland and got to know the supervisor really well, became very good friends with him. And so I had an opportunity to start my business at that point and they had some projects. When I did start my business, that was back in 1981, ’80, ’81, interest rate was 22.5%. So needless to say there wasn’t too much work out there. So what was I doing starting my own business? Well, I had an opportunity and I took it. And things led to this point. Did some great projects, at some beautiful homes, some commercial work, had some slow times just like everybody else in our business, no matter what kind of business you’re in.
Three years ago I had been dealing with a draftsman in Portland. Unfortunately he had passed away unexpectedly. So I was looking for a new designer to help me along, and again, met Teresa and here we are. And we have done three or four, five homes together. We just finished one up, a fairly good sized one in Cape Elizabeth. And we are doing one right now, underway. I believe a 5000 square foot home. Things are going well.
Teresa Simpson: It’s a lot of fun.
Russ Doucette: Yes.
Teresa Simpson: I feel like I’m blessed to finally met him and work with him. It’s kind of a dream of mine.
Russ Doucette: It goes both ways.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Well, talk to me about the collaboration. What is it about each of your individual skill sets and also the way that you communicate that seems to work well for you?
Teresa Simpson: I feel that I’ve noticed, having feedback from my clients, that I tend to listen well and I can envision what a client’s needs and wants are. And I really think that being an architect, it’s key to be able to understand what a client wants. Not necessarily to give them my design, but work with them in trying to obtain their design and facilitate it. And I’ve always noticed that the key details that Russ just said in his homes and his craftsmanship show, is exactly what I try to instill into my client’s homes. So it’s sort of we’re on the same road. And now that we get to work together, we can facilitate that a little bit better in project management for our clients.
Russ Doucette: For me it’s the communication between her and I is great because she doesn’t take criticism, she takes it very well. And it’s not criticism, it’s a different way of doing things. Where I have the ability to design homes and build them, in the past I haven’t had much luck dealing with architects, they kind of stay away from me, because they know that I can do it myself. But that’s not really what I wanted to do. I can. And unfortunately a lot of them have their own way of doing things, and where I’m the builder, there are different ways to do it. And I would like to collaborate with them to get the job done in a manner that the client wants, and give the client the outcome they’re looking for. With Teresa, we’ve gone around and around a few times. Where she designed things or how she, when she designs things she’s trying to build it in her mind. Well, sometimes building in your mind and the way you’re accustomed to do it might be different than what I’m accustomed to doing it and how I approach things. So we communicate very well with that, and she’s always asking, “Well how are you doing this? Can we do it different?” Et cetera. So it’s a really good balance, no question.
Teresa Simpson: I definitely have found that I have learned so much from him, it’s like hands on experience with Russ. From the aspects of framing to finish carpentry, how to deal with clients when I had, say that when we feel that we’re right and we try to teach the client maybe what a better solution is. He always an integral way of how to deal with a problem. So I really … I’m like a sponge with his information.
Russ Doucette: Well I think in her background, your parents, your father was a builder?
Teresa Simpson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). In the trades.
Russ Doucette: He was in the trades. So she learned the trades, so she learned it from the bottom up. So when she’s designing she can figure things out, and it’s not always according to the books. In my case, where I started from the ground up. I actually did the physical work. The framing of the homes, the structurals of the homes, the interior trim of the home. So I feel that in my business and where I am today, that helped me tremendously. I’m not what you would call a briefcase contractor that someone just come off the street and start building homes. I know it from the ground up.
Teresa Simpson: Everything about it.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Do you think that that can some times be an issue where there’s one person who is dealing with things in a theoretical way, you know they’re designing things based by the books, the way you’re describing it. And then you have somebody else that’s being called in to deal with the very practical nature of say building materials or timelines, or structural details?
Russ Doucette: It can be. Basically you can pretty much draw anything you want on paper. But actually physically doing it out on the field is somewhat different. You’re always faced with different challenges because the way they draw it on paper looks great. But when you’re starting to put these grafters together or structurally, you have to have the field knowledge of how to build it. Not just read it from a blueprint, you have to have the practical experience. And in a lot of cases you have to improvise. And when you improvise and you have a architect involved, they want to know what’s going on. So before you go ahead and change certain things different than the plans, they want to know about it. And as I mentioned earlier, some of them are willing to go along with it, some of them aren’t. So it’s a balancing act. Again the end product is the most important thing.
Teresa Simpson: I have a lot of clients who come to me with, who have either watched HGTV or get all the fancy magazines including … I actually do use Main Home and Design as a reference material. Because it’s local, it’s trendy, it’s upbeat, everybody gets ideas from it. But with the clients who tend to look at a lot of Pinterest or Howse which are great resources, it sometimes gives an unrealistic approach to design or what not. It misleads our clients. So Russ and I really tend to design what we feel is best for that particular piece of land, or that landscape. Whether it’s inland or on the ocean, and that’s another way that we tend to bounce ideas. They’re true from our hearts and how we feel something should look, as if we would live there. Not necessarily from opening up a webpage or a magazine, even though it’s a good resource. So we try to show clients out of the box per se, rather than out of the magazine per se.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Do you think that sometimes people don’t … they think they know what they want, but they don’t really know what they want?
Teresa Simpson: That tends to happen quite a bit with me, or they don’t really know how to verbalize it. They want to be trendy, but they want to be unique at the same time, and we have a tendency to show clients whether it’s from past projects, or again, thinking out of the box. You don’t want the cookie cutter home, maybe some ideas that everyone else shares, but a lot of homeowners whether they can’t voice it or they don’t know how, I have the capability of showing clients 3D perspectives that actually use current materials. Russ will tell me which windows, what brand doors, what flooring, what paint colors. And I’ll actually use those particular materials, show the client a quick 3D just like HGTV would. And it helps them, that client, understand what they’re going to have.
Russ Doucette: I think a lot of clients have a pretty good idea what they want. The biggest thing is they can’t visualize it, and I get that all the time. So by being in the business as long as I have, and having so many houses to go by and pictures, et cetera, and dealing with so many clients in the past as well, you have a pretty good sense of what they’re really looking at. Especially when a new client comes to me, is interested in having a project done or built, it takes a while to get to know the individual. You go to their house, you talk to them, you listen, you listen to what … they like craftsman style, traditional, modern, et cetera. So by listening to them more, you get a better idea really what they’re looking for. So when they come to you say, “I know what I want but I can’t visualize it. Can you…” So at that point you get to know them. You have a better idea of what they’re really looking for. So you either sketch it out, or you do a prototype and they see it, they like it or don’t. It goes really well that way.
Teresa Simpson: I tend to find that we both tend to hold client’s hands throughout the entire process. And a lot of clients who can’t necessarily vision something or can, don’t always know what to spend on a budget. And having us collaborate from the very beginning of design right through the construction, we can sort of guide the clients as to what their budget or that their project can afford them, rather than just designing beautiful pictures and pouring a foundation that may be something that they don’t want.
Russ Doucette: And their budget is not a HGTV budget.
Teresa Simpson: Right.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Well that must be an interesting conundrum. Because you have people who want beautiful things and they have a sense for maybe how much it might cost. But then it may not be that much here, you know things are going to be different than what they see on HGTV for example.
Russ Doucette: Correct. What I like to do is, if somebody’s interested in a house, what I try to do again is, I try to get some information on that house, what style of house, what size of house, what they like inside the house. So at that point I can put all that information together, go back to the office and look at projects that I’ve done, or just by 40 years of experience. I can put a budget together and come back to them and say, “Listen, the size of the house, the style of the house you’re looking for, I feel that a budget of this is what you should really start with. Anything less is …” It basically goes through the interior as well. Somebody’s interested in having a built-in, a custom entertainment center or some kind of cathedral ceiling, barn beams, et cetera. If they tell me in advance, I can tell them what the budget should … what you should allow for a budget before you move forward. So you’re not telling me to do it and then I give you a $5000 bill where you thought it was going to be $2000, you don’t want to do that.
Teresa Simpson: We like to be able to show the client the story of their house, and have them show us the book cover. So we’ll create the inside and then present the entire book to them before any logistics start to happen. That’s why I say we usually do best from the design from the very beginning, which is … it doesn’t always get a chance to have that happen between a contractor and an architect. Usually the architect will give the project to a contractor after it’s designed. But we always like to do it from the beginning.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Do you ever run into problems where you’ve designed something, you’ve build something, you’ve listened to people all the way along, and then they come and look at it and they say, “Oh now, that’s really not what I was thinking about,” has that ever happened?
Teresa Simpson: Yes, it has. I’ve actually had homes that looked completely different on the rear as it does on the front. Usually an oceanside home has two fronts, one on the ocean, one on the driveway side. When you show, I like to be able to show the clients exactly what they portrayed to me and also offer my ideas. So that way we’re not kind of bursting their bubble, but we actually get to show them, “Maybe your idea wasn’t really what we were trying to get or trying to foresee.” And I know that we’ve kind of collaborated on one like that before.
Russ Doucette: Yeah, I mean it’s a common thing, well I say common, not necessarily. I remember when I was actually doing the physical trim work inside of houses. In some cases I had the client sit down while I was doing the built-in. Especially when they didn’t know. So we would try to avoid what you just said, build the whole thing and then it’s not quite what we wanted. Yes that has happened, no question. I think it would happen to any builder having 40 years in the business. It’s not something that’s fun, but it’s something that we thought we were on the right track et cetera. The client thought halfway through it it’s what they wanted as well, but the end product wasn’t what quite what it was. So basically what you do is just basically start all over again and try to avoid it.
Teresa Simpson: That’s related to 3D pictures.
Russ Doucette: In our business it does happen, no question. I plan on being in business for a while and I’m sure it’ll happen again.
Teresa Simpson: Yeah.
Dr Lisa Belisle: When I think about our culture and where we’ve come, we’ve really become very visual. But we’re still sort of two dimensionally visual, which does lead to our ability to say, oh it is a nice picture of something. But thinking in a three dimensional way is a really different thing that I’m not sure most people have the capabilities for.
Teresa Simpson: I’ve come across a majority of my clientele who can’t envision in, as you’re saying in 3D fashion being all 2D. So to be able to show a client size relevance, or even roof pitch wise, a lot of people can’t envision what a second floor over first floor will look like, or the size of how large a family living room is. I usually try to encourage clients to do what a I call the paper doll effect. Which they measure their furniture, they cut it out on a piece of paper to a scale I’ve given them, and actually place it on a floor plan. And Russ and I always start with floor plans, and that’s it. We provide that initially rather than the whole kit and caboodle, rather than all the elevations in 3Ds, not to overwhelm a homeowner. Because sometimes if they can’t envision something, too much information can be a burden. So we just start small to be able to show them what we’re in sense we’re going to be showing them and giving them. I think you probably, you’ve taught me one of those-
Russ Doucette: Oh now, that’s very true, although today with what Teresa said earlier about Howse and Pinterest, there are a million pictures of just about everything that’s been built already out there. And it’s just a matter of just scrolling through it and finding something. And as I said earlier, if you can get me something that’s close to what you’re looking for but not quite there, that’s when we can come together and collaborate and design something that the individual is really looking for.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Those-
Teresa Simpson: I was just going to day, there’s been a few times where we’ve had mutual clients that have shown us the same pictures. So we can tell what’s trendy out there without looking at the websites, because everybody keeps bringing similar pictures.
Dr Lisa Belisle: So there are some advantages of all of these things then.
Teresa Simpson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Russ Doucette: Oh, all the information that’s out there today is always an advantage, no question. If you know how to use it and how to find it, no question.
Teresa Simpson: I still like to have all the resources of the professionals around this area [inaudible 00:48:38] place to like to be able to use the locals who, like Russ, have the experience.
Russ Doucette: Forty years ago I don’t think computers were around, so I don’t … so we went on visuals, and what we had done et cetera. I mean it was completely different than it was today. Just like everything else I suppose.
Teresa Simpson: We used to build our models rather than creating them on the computer.
Russ Doucette: Yes we did that a few times.
Dr Lisa Belisle: When I think about the younger, I’ll call it the younger generation which is going to make me sound like I’m ancient, but you know, I’ll watch HGTV with my 16 year old, she’s a junior in high school. I don’t think she’s going to go into … she’s not probably going to become an architect, I don’t think she’s going to be a contractor, it’s just not where here interests lie. But for some reason, she and I can find this common ground and watch these shows like Flip or Flop, or, you know. And it’s interesting to me that this has become intriguing and has become a place of commonality. I would not have foreseen that when I was 16, that I would someday be interested in watching a show about home renovation.
Teresa Simpson: That’s funny you say that. When I was in high school, I know a lot of my friends would be watching MTV, but I was watching This Old House, so I tend to find … because I like to see something created. One thing that I found, a lot of … that pleases me, is to be able to see a house that I’ve designed from the beginning up, and then see it in Maine Home and Design, or go through, walk through the house. To me that’s like This Old House and watching the show, watching the TV shows, and seeing Chip and Joanna on TV being able to see what they’ve created. I think it’s always neat to be able to walk into a house that you’ve designed and see it for real.
Russ Doucette: I think with those shows on TV, HGTV, and again I watch those as well, not on a regular basis but I watch them, like Flip or Flop or Love It or List It. What I like about them is one sense I think they’re teaching America something. Number one is that if you’re buying an existing home and you’re interested in renovating it, that it’s not cut and dry. There’s many, many unknowns. So when you’re looking for a price from a contractor to design what you want, I think they understand that there are going to be a lot of unknowns that most of the time are going to increase the price. Or if you don’t want the price increased, you’re going to have to cut back on something. And you get that a lot on Love It or List It. Okay, they’re going in with $100,000 budget, and they’re going to do a master bedroom, and they’re going to do this or whatever. And then they get into it, they find a big problem, I don’t know how expensive it’s going to be, but she come back and says, “You know that laundry room that you wanted, it’s not going to happen because we got to do this and it’s structural, so we have to fix it.” So I think in one sense if people are really listening or looking, I think they’re understanding that when they want a remodel job done.
Teresa Simpson: Because remodeling tends to be more expensive, more than building new.
Russ Doucette: Oh no question, no question, it is.
Teresa Simpson: And the home is nice. So yeah the Love It or List It teaches us that.
Russ Doucette: Right. And then Joanna Gaines, she’s in that area where she likes to re-use old stuff. She doesn’t like to throw anything away. She’s always looking at rummage sales or things of that nature. Which looks good when she puts it all together, no question. I think in those senses, the only thing about that is it’s not really price, you know…
Teresa Simpson: It’s not for the New England area.
Russ Doucette: Well now, it isn’t. Because I look at some of those things and I said, there’s no way that they can do what they’re doing for that money.
Teresa Simpson: We have something similar to that, but we tend to show our clients for the trendy ideas, where it might be less expensive where we could find them, rather than just going to the local flea markets or going to Boston per se to do it.
Russ Doucette: Right, so. Again I think we all look at HGTV and know in that respect.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Well Maine Home and Design I know has featured your work before, and quite a lot actually. So tell me about a project that you’ve particularly enjoyed collaborating on that has had some maybe challenges that have ended up, you’ve been able to overcome them and turn them into benefits.
Teresa Simpson: Yeah, I think one that will be featured soon is the latest Crispin job that we worked on which we had a client that was downsizing to a beautiful home, it’s about 10,000 square feet. And there was roof line challenges, where the homeowners knew what they wanted, they knew they wanted to downsize. And it was up to Russ and I to really be able to make the framing affordable without scaling back on too much of the design aspects. So from street level, it still looks nice, but roof lines and interior two story cathedral ceilings, balconies, that happened on the Crispin job that-
Russ Doucette: Yes, that was a great job I think, it was a collaboration not just between Teresa and I but the homeowner was quite involved. And they had a designer of their own that was involved in it as well. So it was one of those projects that we all had to come together and put it all together. At this point the client is very happy, it was a great project. It was probably a year and a half in the making. They just … well the house is just finally done probably a couple three weeks ago. And we are working on another one right now in Cape Elizabeth that was a challenge. And it’s that same issue about the roof rafters in the back and how everything comes together. As I mentioned earlier, you can draw it on paper but you have to be in the field to figure out how to put it together. And that’s the only way you’re going to do it. So we’re doing that right now. And actually after this segment, we’re both going to go down there and look at the job together and …
Teresa Simpson: It’s like, for that cathedral ceiling issue.
Russ Doucette: Yeah.
Dr Lisa Belisle: So there’s a lot of kind of ongoing conversation it sounds like. There’s a lot of pulling it apart, seeing what works, getting back together. It’s not really, there’s not one straight path, you’re not always sure that you’re going to start at A and get to B.
Teresa Simpson: Right, there’s always the Jenga piece puzzle. We always … I think that’s the challenge and the fun part that I get to learn from Russ is, as I’m designing I’m framing it in my head, but I’m constantly on the phone with him saying, “What if I move this one dormer back a little bit farther, what are we going to do the roof collar ties,” and what not?. And he will literally start verbally framing it on the phone with me, which is actually a good thing right?
Russ Doucette: No it is. There are people out there that don’t want to build the bigger projects. They find them not affordable or not a money maker, or it’s just too difficult and they don’t want to go that route. They want to stay with the cookie cutters. Well, I’m not that way. The bigger the challenge, the better it is. And that’s where Teresa comes in hand, because you need each other. You know sometimes on a bigger job, even though you drew it, well I’ll go back to Teresa, let’s redraw this this way and see what happens and see how it looks and so on and so forth. So it really … when you start a project depending on the size and the difficulty of it, it’s not always cut and dry as you just mentioned. There’s a lot of work behind the scenes that takes place to get it done.
Dr Lisa Belisle: Well I appreciate your taking the time to come in here and have this conversation with me. I have been speaking with Russ Doucette who is the owner of Russ Doucette Custom Home Builders in Scarborough, and Teresa Simpson who is the owner of Midcoast Home Designs in Wiscasset. Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today.
Russ Doucette: Well, thank you for having us.
Teresa Simpson: Thanks, it was fun.
Dr Lisa Belisle: You have been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 327. Our guests have included Rob Whitten, Todd Richardson, Russ Doucette and Teresa Simpson. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Main Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show sign up for our E-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as doctorlisa, and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. Please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are pleased that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producers are Paul Koenig and Brittany Cost. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick, our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at lovemaineradio.com.
Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com.
Lisa Belisle : This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to Love Maine Radio show number 326 airing for the first time on Sunday December 17, 2017. Today’s guests are architect and sugar loafer Kevin Browne and sisters Sarah Kelly and Leah Robert, the founders of Salty Girl Boutique and a natural cosmetic line called Salty Girl Beauty. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portal Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest and is located in the heart of the old port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space, including Daniel Cory, Jill Hoy, and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at artcollectormaine.come.
Lisa Belisle : Kevin Browne is a Maine licensed architect. He also owns a house in Carrabassett Valley and he skis and mountain bikes at Sugarloaf Mountain Resort throughout the winter months. And you do so with your two children I hear, Kevin.
Kevin Browne: Yes, yes.
Lisa Belisle : It’s good to have you back in here.
Kevin Browne: Thank you, thank you for having me.
Lisa Belisle : You’re very welcome. You came in here, I think we decided back a couple years ago, a year and a half ago, we were talking about the Falmouth Library and you live in Falmouth. So I just wanted to get a little update on what’s going on in Falmouth in the library, ’cause there’s some big stuff happening now.
Kevin Browne: Yes. We’ve been … the Capital Campaign Committee has been hard at work trying to secure the fundraising to do the renovations. And I believe to-date they have just over 2 million dollars with the goal of raising 2.8. So we’re on the homestretch in terms getting towards that goal to make this a reality for Falmouth and the community. It’s exciting to see it, and as we get closer to that fundraising goal, we’re gonna continue with the design to make sure that everything is in place to have the building built that they want to have it for the community.
Lisa Belisle : So what are the things that you’ve learned over the last year or so since I’ve seen you?
Kevin Browne: It’s interesting watching the fundraising committee and just understanding how hard it is, with so many other factors in the Falmouth community, ’cause there’s a lot of other entities going after the same fundraising resources. So it’s been a little challenging in that sense but I think they have a really strong committee and it’s been good to see the progress and I think we’re on the homestretch for it.
Lisa Belisle : Hen I spoke with Scott Simons about the Portland library, he said one of the interesting things was just the evolution of what libraries are to us. And I think you and I spoke about that last time, where it used to mean one thing, but now information has such a lot of tentacles to it that trying to know how best to work with community members is kind of an evolving process.
Kevin Browne: Yes. And I think it’s important in Falmouth in general just because there really isn’t a downtown. I’ve spoken about this last time, but … It’s really, partially a place for people to come congregate and have meetings. It’s not just about the books. It’s more than that. It’s crazy the amount of programs I never even realized until I got involved with the library, what they offer with people, elderly people learning to use electronics, iPads. They have classes for all that stuff. And story time for you kids. They’re very popular programs, an being on the board, we’ve … I’ve learned a lot of the resources they learned at the library. It’s pretty … I never would have guessed.
So I think the building itself it gonna be sort of a meeting place, information center. Just a nice location and the part of Falmouth where there’s a lot of businesses and stuff. And I think it will … it will be a great sort of building for that, to bring all those people together.
Lisa Belisle : And I think Falmouth has been trying to create more of a downtown.
Kevin Browne: Yes.
Lisa Belisle : It’s much easier now to, for example, run or walk even along Route 1 where all the stores are.
Kevin Browne: And I think that went back to … they did a reconstruction of route one. Really, they changed the zoning in that area to really slow the cars down and create more, like you said, pedestrian walks. And I think it’s been nice to sort of give it that feel of street lamps and trees and all of those things. Any new building need to be built closer to the road, not further away, like what was currently there. Changing that fabric over time is going to take some time just because … the Walmart, the Staples, all of those things. The idea of bringing the buildings closer to the road will help give it more of a feel of a walkable community.
Lisa Belisle : Explain that to me, if you would. Because I know in Yarmouth, where I live, there is a big building that has gone up on Route 1 and it’s right next to the road. And I wondered what is it about that that makes it easier for a town to be walkable?
Kevin Browne: I think it’s just, you don’t have a parking lot in front of your building, like the big sea of parking spaces in front of Walmart currently in Falmouth. It’s more about, you look at these old communities, these old towns that have been around for hundreds of years, but all the buildings are pretty much right on the road. But that’s what sort of creates the downtown feel. First is, being more separated from the road where it just sort of gives you this sea of expansive space and asphalt, really. So it’s really a sense … You know, like downtown Portland, you know all the buildings are very close together. You can walk in a store … in and out of stores much easier than walking across a big parking lot.
Lisa Belisle : How long have you been an architect, Kevin?
Kevin Browne: I’ve been in the architecture business about 19 years. I’ve been an architect for about, let’s say about 15.
Lisa Belisle : So tell me what changes you’ve seen, as far as people’s expectations of design. Whether it’s for their own houses or whether it’s for commercial projects.
Kevin Browne: I think, when I first started out, I started out in a residential firm in Camden. And we were doing very traditional, shingle-style, Maine homes. But nothing crazy contemporary, nothing like that. But I think it was a nature of the type of firm I was working in, too. But I’m seeing a lot more creative solutions to similar designs. So we’re able to, not basically recreating the things that have been done in different forms but really adding some new interests and exciting new contemporary structures. And that’s kind of what we like to do. We don’t like to do one set sort of style, ’cause it gets boring over time.
To be creative about it, run the gambit with the styles. That’s kind of our goal. And I think, I remember when we first started out, there wasn’t much contemporary stuff going on. Now especially in downtown Portland, there’s just a lot of modern, more contemporary structures going up. There’s so much going on in Portland right now. It’s just interesting to see all the different talents and all the different angles people take with their designs.
Lisa Belisle : That’s true. When I was out to dinner the other night with my daughter, she was commenting on one of the hotels in the old port, which looks very different from all the other surrounding places. And I think sometimes people in the past might have said “We want all of the structures to look exactly the same.” But I think it’s lends variety to the landscape. I think there’s some more visual, at least to my mind, some more visual interest to having different types of structures.
Kevin Browne: Yeah, It’s more of an evolution of the sort of architecture. Just like the different periods over time. The Arts and Crafts movement, the Art Deco, all those different time periods. I wouldn’t say that there’s a name for what we have going on right now, but it’s just a blend of all those different architecture theories and designs that kind of is creating what we’ve got now.
Lisa Belisle : So you have a home in Falmouth, but you also have a home in Carrabassett Valley?
Kevin Browne: Yes.
Lisa Belisle : Tell me about that choice.
Kevin Browne: It’s actually … a rainy day, we were supposed to go hiking and we ended up looking for a house, which wasn’t even something that we were thinking about, my wife and I. But we were gonna hike the Bigelow Range, but it was raining so we drove around the Ruddington neighborhood, which is just south of the mountain. E have good friends that live in the neighborhood, and to us it was appealing because it wasn’t … We like to mountain bike and we like to ski. And at the time that we bought, the mountain biking was just starting to explode up there with the trails that they were building and they money they were putting into the network of trails. So, I’ve always dreamed of having sort of a mountain camp or a lake house or something like that. But, as my wife and Heather and I have been talking, we decided, let’s spend the winters here, skiing on the weekends and being up there just as much in the summertime, depending on schedules.
So we ended up finding a house that day. Well, we ended up going to contact the realtor that was listing the house that was for sale that we bought. And then we went and looked at it. And then I went back and looked at it a few weeks later, and we put an offer on it. It’s a 1970 … 1973 house. Three stories, the neighborhood of Ruddington was all started in the early 70s and … No two homes were the same. They were all different, but that same sort of style. And the style, I was talking about, some of the contemporary forms that we’re starting to see in Portland with the kind of design, is what the house is.
So in a way, it was kind of interesting. We’re slowly trying to make it a fun little funky camp, and it’s a 3 story house but not very wide and long. But it’s actually more comfortable living-wise, the way the rooms are laid out, compared to our home in Falmouth. It’s camp. We get up there and we have a wood stove, which we don’t have at home, so it’s kind of … like a project where we’re doing some creative things to make it our own. But it came fully furnished. We didn’t really need to do much to it. Over time we’ve just been starting to change some things around to make it unique. It’s kind of fun.
Lisa Belisle : How long have you been skiing at Sugarloaf?
Kevin Browne: I believe we’re going into … Trying to remember now … I think this is our fourth or fifth year up there. Pretty much every weekend through the winter. It’s just a great community, you know. There’s mostly Maine families that we see. Lot of people that are in the kids’ school classes. it’s just a laid back atmosphere. Everyone is so friendly. And I think that’s why we’re really drawn to it. And the kids have their friends that they’re in ski groups with.
Usually we always go to dinner on Friday night when we get up there. And then usually Saturday night we either go to one of our friend’s houses and we have a smorgasbord of food. Buffet kind of thing.
It’s nice. It’s nice hanging out with friends and not feeling like we’re at home and we’re gonna be running around doing errands. We’re up there and either we ski, we cross-country ski, we mountian bike. It’s just, being outdoors is really what it’s about.
Lisa Belisle : So in some ways, having a house that’s more like a camp makes that possible. Because it kind of … You want something comfortable enough that you can put your feet up at the end of the day. But during the day, you’re gonna want to be outside.
Kevin Browne: And that way we can leave our stuff up there and not have to truck as much stuff back and forth if we were renting a place. Although if we rented it for the season, it would be a little different. But it’s just nice, having that ability to not have to drive two and a quarter hours back home after a long day of skiing or biking or whatever.
Lisa Belisle : When did you first start skiing?
Kevin Browne: I don’t start until probably 1994. Not until I got out of high school. And it was just something I never, we never did as a family. But I was interested, I did with some friends when I got out of high school. I was starting community college in Pennsylvania. The mountains are much different in eastern Pennsylvania than up here. Or even out west for that matter.
Lisa Belisle : Tell me about the decision to move to Maine from going to school in Pennsylvania.
Kevin Browne: I want to … I started out my community college in an architecture field in Pennsylvania. My parents wanted to make sure I wanted to become and architect before all the money was spent on the school to realize that’s not what I wanted to do. So it was a much more cost-effective way to get the start to architecture school process. From there, I went on to a Bachelor of Architecture school and I ended up going to Norwich University in Vermont. Really became in love with being in New England, and being in Vermont through the year. I skied even more, I started to get really into skiing when I was in Vermont.
And then, after I graduated from college, I went back to Pennsylvania to work for a year in a firm that I had worked in during the summers during school. Then a friend of mine was working at John Morris Architects up in Camden. He’s like, they were looking for the hire and they were busy, so I ended up interviewing and I moved to Camden, Maine. I thought it would be short term, I didn’t know. I was trying to figure out where I wanted to be. I ended up living and working in Camden 3 years before I then moved down to the Portland area.
And it grew on me. It was more my speed of life, more the outdoors that I liked. Hiking, biking, skiing, you know. The ocean and the mountains close by. When I was living in Pennsylvania, it was an Eastern Pennsylvania town called Hellertown and we were probably an hour and a half from New York City. But it was getting to the point where, it’s gotten really built up over the last … since I’ve left. It’s been about 18, 19 years. And … the traffic. It’s just harder to get to do what I wanted to do, because I’d have to drive further to get there.
So, to me it was … Moving up here, it’s just more my way of life. That’s what I like up here.
Lisa Belisle : Do you worry that Maine could move in that direction? With being built up and having more traffic?
Kevin Browne: I think certain areas. I think the Portland area, eventually over time. Hopefully there’s … Hopefully we can figure out ways to control that before it gets to the point and it ruins that sort of character that people come to Maine for. Sort of that rural feel to it. But I think certain areas could, bigger city areas. So hopefully there’s ways we can control the growth of that from happening.
But there are a lot of people moving here, that’s for sure. It seems like a hotspot right now, especially the Portland area just with all the building. The empty-nesters, we’re doing a lot of projects for that. The type of people that are downsizing and moving, they want to move closer to the center of town.
Lisa Belisle : And at the same time, I’ve noticed that people who are downsizing, and maybe moving to the State of Maine, they’re looking for smaller spaces. I’ve been to a lot of people’s condos that don’t take up very much space. They’re not looking for a big lawn. So there’s something very efficient about that, it feels to me.
Kevin Browne: Oh definitely. And I think, we run the gambit for all size projects, but I have to say that you have to think more with those smaller projects because every square inch matters. But you can do some unique things in those small spaces to sort of be dual-purpose. Kinda of an interesting way to think about things.
Lisa Belisle : I have to tell you this, this is only the second time this has happened.
So I guess we’ll … Hold on.
So Spencer, do you want me to just keep going? Okay.
All right Kevin, you and I are up and running.
Kevin Browne: All right!
Lisa Belisle : I’m just gonna lock this down so we don’t get as much background noise.
Kevin Browne: I like that.
Lisa Belisle : It’s like you’re talking….
Kevin Browne: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle : All right, let’s see. What was I gonna ask you? Oh yes.
Tell me about your children’s experience up at Sugarloaf. You have two kids who ski, but from what I understand they have very different approaches to skiing.
Kevin Browne: Yes. Yes. … I enjoyed skiing, so at a young age I had them both try it, and we started off at Shawnee Peak because it was close. It’s a nice little mountain and … stole decent terrain. So we started off in like a Sunday program, and my daughter did it for I think two years, my son did it for one year. From there, we decided my son wanted a bigger challenge, so he ended up … That’s right about the time we decided to buy at Sugarloaf. The first two or three years I think they were both in the Bubblecuffer program, which is sort of the weekend program that … The people that come up every weekend, that’s the program that their kids usually get put in. They’re with the same kids every week, and they really start to get a little group of friends together from all different tons. Southern Maine, a lot of times. But there’s kids from all over. Most of the time, it’s the Maine families.
It’s incredible how fast they pick it up. I remember skiing with them after their … They’d ski a full day on Saturday and half day on Sunday every week. And at the end of the Holidays they’d be with their group pretty much every day for the week except, like, one or two days or something. That consistency of learning to ski like that, I remember the first time we went skiing I was trying to get my son … Crazy the amount of control they have. You worry about them flying down a mountain, and you’re like oh jeez, hope he’s not going too fast where you can’t control them.
They’ve become really almost better skiers than my wife and I. This is their, going in their fifth year that we’re going into being up there. It’s just fun to watch them. They’re much lower to the ground, so that’s when I’m contributing that they’re taking chances part of it. Yeah, I remember the first time we ran into the trees to start skiing in. I was like, I didn’t want to do that. “Are you sure your instructor’s taken you in there?” But their instructor takes them through every trail on the mountain. Like, double black diamonds and it’s just, it’s crazy. I’m glad you’re trained and you know what you’re doing, because I’ll just …
It’s a little leap of faith to take them, when we first started to take them on some of that challenging stuff. But now I know they can handle it and it’s a lot of fun because we’re not … They’re waiting for us, sometimes, coming down the mountain. It’s a great family thing to do that we can do longterm. It’s not something that we’ll grow out of. It’s something that they can do up until we’re retired. That kind of thing.
So it’s a great family way to all enjoy the same thing.
Lisa Belisle : Yeah, I think about the benefits of skiing where you’re, especially if you’re all up there at the same time. There’s a few things to do but most of them are around skiing, at least in the winter. Versus when you’re down here and you have one kid who’s playing basketball and another one who’s swimming and you’re kind of going just from events to events to events, just watching them all the time. It just has a very different feeling to it.
Kevin Browne: Yeah. Yeah, it’s totally true and that’s what we’re experiencing right now, being home.One’s doing field hockey and one’s doing soccer and … My wife and I are each trying to find our own time and just balancing all that. It’s a rat race to find the balance. Once it comes Thanksgiving, our weekends, we’re all together and we know what we’re doing. It’s the one thing, we’ve discouraged basketball and those type of winter things because that will cut in. We’re being selfish about it, but we all can do skiing or there’s these other things which would keep us home. Things that would sort of break up the weekend.
Lisa Belisle : I think that’s an important consideration. That we want our kids to be healthy, so we want them to be doing things that are active. But then, if you want to keep you family structure healthy, and then to try to find things that everybody can do, whether it’s mountain-biking or hiking or skiing … That’s not necessarily the direction that we go in these days.
Kevin Browne: Right, right. And it’s true. We’ve been … They’re both very into mountian biking, too, which we’ve been slow not forcing it one them, but making sure they enjoy it. Because it’s kind of what we do in the summertime. We all go out and again, it’s a lot like skiing. It’s this great family thing that we all love to do. My daughter, this summer, she did it. She did mountain biking with us but she wasn’t always crazy about it like her brother was. But she’s hooked now. She did a camp. An all girls camp at the gear hub, which is part of the Camp Ketcha. And that really energized her. She was all excited when she got done with that.
It’s like a most of the week, half-days, and then the last one they biked all the way down from Portland down to Camp Ketcha. They did like 30 miles, 26 miles, something like that. And then they camped out over night. She loved it. And I think that really energized her to really … A lot of times, like when we were out biking, her brother would be trying to be first and all that. I think that discouraged her a little bit, but I think she’s really energized now to … She enjoys it just as much, I think.
It’s another fun thing that we’re just gonna keep … When we go up to Sugarloaf in the summertime, we … The trails up there are great for all levels. And that’s where they’ve really learned, is to mountain bike in the woods, slowly progressing up to the harder trails.
Lisa Belisle : I’ve noticed that I run on a lot of trails that mountain bikers share. And I would say by and large, the people who mountain bike are very aware, and very aware of the runners, the walkers, the dogs, the small children. And also, I think the people who maintain the trails and the mountain bikers and all the users are more and more aware of what happens when you put fat tires on a muddy surface, for example. Or when you have a lot of runners who that are going through.
And I think that that’s kind of … I think that that’s good, that we know that we’re having an impact on the environment and sometimes you need to close a trail down or …
Kevin Browne: Yeah, there’s definitely been a lot more advocacy. There’s been a lot of new trails that have opened up in the last 5 years. There’s a lot of groups in place that help control the trail, the user groups. It’s not just mountain bikers. It’s a multi-use trail, so it’s not gonna just be for mountain bikers, it’s for really, everybody. Sharing the trail with those people and being courteous of somebody passing you, you pull over and things like that. It’s just gonna make it much easier to … continue the use of those trails.
One user group’s not yelling at another. Just so everyone is polite to each other. I think it just makes it a much better environment. Certainly, there’s some of those people out there that will go biking on a rainy day, which they shouldn’t. You wait for the trails to dry out, especially in the spring. Because otherwise you’re gonna lose the ability to go back and use that trail because they’ll close that trail.
I think more people are getting a little smarter about being respectful of that stuff.
Lisa Belisle : Yeah, it’s an interesting … It’s kind of an interesting discussion. It’s not that different from having a discussion about how you use the trails on a mountain. There’s a lot of different groups that are using those trails and we also have to be aware of our impact on the trees and the other things that are still growing on the mountain and the wildlife. And actually not that different than being aware of more people moving to Portland, more people sharing the space more people sharing the roads.
Kevin Browne: You have to work together.
Lisa Belisle : Yeah you do have to work together. Which is something we don’t always think. Sometimes we’re more about what’s best for us but we have to realize there’s a lot of other people in the world. Not everybody’s like us.
Kevin Browne: No, and I think touching on that, that’s great to see of what’s going on in Carrabassett Valley right now because it’s not just a mountain bike group creating these trails. It’s a collaboration of all these different groups working together to make on trail, or a network of trails. The main Hudson Trails Organization, the town of Carrabassett, the … Sugarloaf Mountain. But the biggest, I think, spearheading part of it is the Carrabassett Valley NEMBA, which is New England Mountain Bike Association.
So they’re all working in conjunction with each other to sort of create this network because they can see this big picture is creating more of a stronger economy for up there. Because Off-season, it’s great in the wintertime, they’ve got all the skiing traffic. In the summertime it’s kind of quiet up there. It’s kind of nice, but, it would be great to … There’s sort of a … area of trails over in northeast kingdom of Vermont, call the Kingdom Trails. They’ve taken the area around Burke Ski Mountain and there are over 100 miles of mountain bike trails.
But you go there in the summer and it’s like the mountain biking Mecca of the northeast. A lot of Canadians coming down, but the whole town is just swarmed with mountain bikers. And I think Sugarloaf is trying and Carrabassett Valley is really trying to create a community like that. But think, if anything, they have more of the potential there in the Carrabassett Valley to be able to do that. It’s just a lot of longterm. There’s lot of land out there to be able to create all this. It just takes the time and the money to get there.
But they town’s been putting in a lot of money into that, because they can see, this could be a longterm economic help for them.
Lisa Belisle : Well, I will see you up at Sugarloaf. I know that for sure. Although, I also know that we cross paths often because of the work that you do with Maine Home Design. It’s been a pleasure talking with you, and I appreciate you coming in. I’ve been speaking with Kevin Browne who is a Maine Licensed architect who also owns a house in Carrabassett Valley and he skis and mountain bikes at Sugarloaf Mountain Resort throughout the winter months along with his wife and two children. Thanks for coming in.
Kevin Browne: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is also brought to you by Aristelle. A lingerie boutique on Exchange Street in Portland’s Old Port. Where every body is seen as a work of art, and beauty is celebrated from the inside out. Shop with us in person, or online at aristelle.com.
Lisa Belisle: Sister Sarah Kelly and Leah Robert are the sounders of Salty Girl Boutique and a natural cosmetic line called Salty Girl Beauty. It’s great to have you in today.
Leah: Thanks for having us.
Sarah: Thanks for having us.
Lisa Belisle: This is something I’ve been interested in for a while because, we know that health products, or beauty products, I should say, aren’t necessarily good for our health. And it seem to be that something maybe not as many people are aware of.
Lisa Belisle: But you’re both pretty aware of this.
Leah: We are.
Sarah: So I started out my career working at Toms of Maine, so it’s always kind of been something that we were brought up, using natural products. But then, it was funny, it was more body care products and also eating organically and natural and whole foods, and that kind of stuff. And then in 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I was … It makes you kind of rethink everything when that happens. And Leah is an oncology nurse, and so the two of us just started really looking at what we put on our bodies.
Not only did the body care become important, but I realized my makeup case is just full of products that is not good for you. The mascara has Formaldehyde in it, that’s why it’s water-resistant. All of those things that you’re putting on every single day is just not as good as you would want it to be. And there’s just so many great products out there, and that’s when Leah and I just started to be like “What are we doing? I think this could be a business for us.”
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Sarah: That include those things.
Leah: That include those things, why not? And it’s really nice that now my patients are recognizing me, recognizing our brand and saying “Oh my gosh, I’ve been on your website. I love you products.” And I can start that conversation with them before they go home, after I treat them, which I really nice.
Lisa Belisle: One of the things I’ve noticed with beauty products is … Sometimes you have to work with maybe not getting as … Well, effective, I guess is the word for it. A product, in order to get healthier products. And what you’re suggesting is now there are better products that can be just as effective and clean your face just as well. The makeup can look just as nice. And just not have extra stuff in it.
Sarah: There’s been so much research and scientific advancement over the last 25 years, so the deodorant that people might have started with as a teenager, or as a … what our parents might have used, is so different now. And there is a difference between the chemicals. They stop, they block things. And then some of the natural approaches, it is body chemistry, so sometimes people might use that first deodorant or that first cream or something and it doesn’t fit well with their body chemistry, but it doesn’t mean all natural products are like that. So I think sometimes you do have to experiment a little bit to find out what the best approach is. So I know I’ve gone through a couple different natural deodorants before I found the one that works for me. That’s an important thing.
But then, from a cosmetic standpoint, it’s, I think, the products out there … There’s so many wonderful products out there that are just as effective. And they make your skin feel better. Some of the skin problems that have been out there have been cause db the chemicals that are in these conventional products. And when you pick a natural product, it’s used with aloe or shay butter or mango butter. And those are good things for your body.
Leah: And there’s just not much regulation in the United States with using ingredients, and I think people don’t realize that. I know that the last article I read, there’s British literature out there saying parabens were found in breast tissue of women with breast cancer. There is research out there, so it’s just what you decide to do. What do you do with that literature and I think for Sarah and I, if there’s research out there, we wanna …
Leah: Educate ourselves, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Well we know that in Europe and even in Canada, people are a lot more careful about what they’re using. And in part because the government is helping regulate those things.
Sarah: There’s only 11 ingredients banned in the United States, versus over-
Leah: 13 hundred, 12 hundred in the EU
Sarah: In the Eu. So it just … That alone makes you step back and take a breath and be like, whoa. What are we using?
Lisa Belisle: I have a special concern about the younger women especially. For example, my 21 year old daughter and my 16 year old daughter. My son doesn’t wear makeup, so he can have healthier soaps and that’s good. But, they’re getting into makeup and body care at a time when their bodies are still really vulnerable. And for the longest time, I’ve tried to emphasize natural and healthy products. And they’re expensive. And my kids, when they go to buy these at the store, they’re like, “You know, I have to decide between this very expensive, natural product and this very inexpensive product that has all these chemicals in it.” And as a parent I can step in and be like “All right, I’ll help you out with this. I’ll help pay for this for a little while.”
But it is an issue when you’re out on your own and you’re on a limited, have a limited budget. So how do you deal with that.
Sarah: So, for us, I mean … Our philosophy has always been pick the most important things that touch the biggest area of your body, and go from there. So when people are trying to make that switch, for example, I don’t say throw away everything in your medicine cabinet and go buy new because that’s-
Leah: It’s too expensive.
Sarah: I know when we were making the switch alone, it was … I ran out of my mascara. Okay, now you buy a new one.
Leah: It took us a full yeah.
Sarah: Yeah to go.
Leah: To really make that switch. And then, you can also pick and choose those products that are more important to you. So I wear mascara every day as a redhead, that’s important to me. So if I was gonna pick and choose things, that is something I would invest in as a natural. I don’t always wear foundation, so if I was looking at price … and I could only choose certain things, maybe that’s not the area that I would choose to spend my money in.
So I think you can do it that way, and there also products … It all ranges, so out product line is within the 20 dollar. Our lipsticks, our cheek tints, our concealer, mascara. That foundation is a little bit more expensive, but it lasts a while, too. Like I said Burt’s Bees, which is a little bit lower, so you can pick … I think there’s comparative brands out there in the marketplace.
In our boutique, we sell things that are 120 creams or a 20 cream so you can really choose and pick what fits your budget. And I think the biggest thing, especially with the younger generation is, and even with women in general is, deodorants in general I think is the most important thing to first switch over. Because we shave our underarms, me nick our armpits, and then we put toxic chemicals right into our bloodstream. I think the first thing, we have to take care of our skin. It’s our largest organ, so … I think the number one things that if you’re thinking about making the switch, is kind of focusing on deodorants
Which, deodorants are so personal, you know? It’ show you smell. It can be hard.
Lisa Belisle: And I agree to Sarah’s point that it hasn’t always been that you can find a natural deodorant that actually works. And having experimented with many of these, over time … Sometimes you give up quite a lot in order to have a natural product. But they are getting better and better.
And sometimes you can just … “Okay I can use my natural product this percentage of the time, which is most of the time.” And every so often you need to go with the product that maybe works a little bit better.
Leah: I mean, I tell women when you are making the switch, for two weeks bring your conventional deodorant with you to work. So when that 2 o’clock time comes and you’re starting to smell maybe a little bit, you just add a little more. But it can take up to … I think a couple weeks for your body to get used to something like that. That’s fine if you have to apply your deodorant that you were using before just to detox-
Sarah: Yeah. It is your body detoxing itself, getting rid of all the toxins ’cause it’s been used to being suppressed from a deodorant standpoint, at least.
Leah: And I think Sarah and I with our boutique. It’s all about education, it’s all about our customers first. So when they do email us and say “I got this one deodorant. It’s not working.” Well, why don’t you try this one?
I think we’re very … What am I trying to say? … We want …. Yeah! We want our customers to really like their products.
Sarah: And find one that works for them.
Lisa Belisle: It’s a pretty competitive market, is it not?
Sarah: It is.
Lisa Belisle: There are a lot of people who have resources that are funneling them into these types of products. So what had your experience been, getting into this yourselves?
Leah: I think, what differentiates Sarah and I is our story. Everybody has a passion. If you’re in this industry of health and wellness, but I think with us it’s-
Sarah: It’s our story, but then also along with our boutique and our beauty line that we started, we also started a nonprofit. Register 501C3, that’s called Foundation for Love. When I was going through treatment, I had a 15 month old and I as pregnant at the time as well. And me and my husband had just gotten married a couple months prior to that, so … I think my family, my friends, they saw that me and my husband Chris really needed time together just to unplug. Unplug from what we were going through. ‘Cause I went through months of chemo and then radiation and surgery.
And so, our foundation focuses on giving back to adults and many of the adults that we give back to are also young parents themselves. It’s almost like Make a Wish but for adults. And on a smaller scale ’cause we’re small. But we’ve given, most recently, a family in Massachusetts, he had stage 4 stomach cancer. He had a 5 and a 7 year old, and he wanted to bring his 5 year old daughter to her first Red Sox game. So we were able to send the family to their first Red Sox game, they were able to meet Jackie Bradley Jr. And they had a wonderful day and he passed way a month later.
So like, to be able to give back in that way has been significant for us. Like, always makes me a little upset, but to see what these people are going through and for us to be able to build our business on kind of that foundation-
Leah: Giving back.
Sarah: To be able to give back. Not only are we educating about what’s out there, trying to provide a really great product. But then also give back to our community is really meaningful for us.
Lisa Belisle: What was it like to watch your sister go through breast cancer, especially given that you’re an oncology nurse.
Leah: Well, I’ve been in this … I’ve been a nurse for 10 years. And for some reason you think that yourself and your family’s untouchable to cancer because of what you do. Don’t ask me why I thought that, but I did. And so I remember when my sister called, and she was 32 weeks pregnant and she found a lump, you know we thought it as just her breasts changing and I said “You’ve gotta go get an ultrasound, tell your OB.”
And then when the diagnosis came back … I think it made me become a better person in a way. Oncology nursing has made me be a better person, in general. These patients that I take care of are so resilient, they’re amazing. They come in with a smile on their face and I know they go home and they just feel defeated some days. And then I add my sister into that group it’s like, jeez. I know exactly what you’re going through because my sister went through it. So sometimes I think I can relate to them on a different level than a nurse who maybe hasn’t had a family member go through it.
It was hard. I mean, I had to at times … I wanted to be a sister first, especially, and a daughter to my parents who I saw them struggle. And that was really important. But then, I needed to be a nurse, too with my family and with my sister.
Sarah: I felt bad we were always you-
Leah: Yeah, I mean.
Sarah: This is what’s going on. What does it mean? And she’s like, “Call your doctor.”
Leah: It was hard. My father, I think, was the worst. He would call me. “What does this mean? What does this mean?”
So it was just, you know, being there for them. When I look back at it, I’m not happy that this happened to my sister, but I’m really happy that I was able to have the experience that I have, and just to be there for her.
Sarah: It definitely brought us closer.
Leah: And then it brought this business.
Leah: I mean, we really took lemonade … lemons and turned it into lemonade. We’ve had one hell of a ride doing it.
Lisa Belisle: When I … When I went through breast cancer myself, I was so surprised, because I tried to use natural products. I was aware of my makeup and my natural shampoos. And I didn’t smoke and I was a runner, and I ate healthy foods. And the people around me were shocked. And I had no family history. And I think that this is the funny place that we get ourselves into. That we know where the risk factors are for things like breast cancer, but we forget that most people who have breast cancer are actually, don’t have for example a family history. And many people don’t even have recognizable risk factors. It’s a funny … I thought I did everything right, but you can still get cancer.
Sarah: That’s exactly-
Leah: That what everybody says. And there’s no answer. Especially when we educate women, obviously we’re not saying “Using all natural products will decrease your risk tremendously.” We don’t know what’s gonna happen.
Sarah: It’s all about taking every precaution, I guess.
Leah: Yeah. And just being-
Sarah: Making the right, for us, the right decision. And we always caution with the judgment or telling people they have to use certain things, because I really think that you have to decide what’s best for you at the end of the day. And I hope people that come to us get that sense as well. That we’re definitely not saying you have to do this, but these are our recommendations if you are looking to make those switches.
Like you said, there’s no foolproof way of avoiding cancer, unfortunately.
Leah: It doesn’t discriminate.
Sarah: We don’t know. It doesn’t discriminate. So I was 36, I had run marathons. I was healthy. Like you said, there was no family history of any type of cancer in my family, so it was definitely a shock. That’s why, you’ve got to exercise, you have to eat right and you have to choose healthy products because you just don’t know what could be that trigger for your body that leads into cancer, I guess.
Lisa Belisle: And it’s also something that there are more and more people that are being diagnosed younger and younger with all different types of cancer. Breast cancer specifically, but I think even colon cancer we’ve no seen. The recommendation is, 50 you get a colonoscopy. But that might actually change. So there’s a lot of stuff going on right now and our bodies are really trying to deal with this. But if we want to have long lives, ’cause we still have a pretty long life expectancy as an American group, then we kind of have to maximize our chances. Even if it’s not a guarantee.
Sarah: And I think … So, not only is it about using natural products, for us. But that trickles down, right? I think a lot of cancer, and this is just my opinion, has to do with the stress that we’re exposed to, and the environmental components that are in the environment now. And so, if we use products that aren’t using chemicals, then those products aren’t going into the environment. And so it’s all about the trickle down and creating that atmosphere you want to live in. That’s part of our philosophy and what we’re doing. We’re not using chemicals. We’re taking that piece out of … It’s like vegetarian. Meatless Mondays. You go meatless one day and how that trickles down into the ecosystems of helping lessen the carbon footprint is tremendous.
That’s part of why we do what we do as well. I think it all kind of comes back to one thing at the end of the day.
Lisa Belisle: It’s also something … It’s important to recognize a lot of the things that maybe leading to cancer also are hormone disruptors. Even if people don’t get cancer, they might have problems with early menopause or maybe they’re gonna struggle with-
Lisa Belisle: Infertility, or … I really believe that there is some sort of chemical something that’s going on in the environment that is cause people to have problems with losing weight and being a thyroid disruptor. So, again, can’t really prove any of this stuff. It’s all kind of in the same …
So the other thing that I think about is, as I said, my children. And I’m guessing that … Obviously your children are very young, Sarah, but, at some point it’s gonna be nice that you’re role-modeling the behavior that your hope that they will someday take on themselves.
Sarah: Yes. Yeah. I have a 2 year old daughter now and a 3 year old son. Like you said, recommending products to your teenagers, it’s the same thing when I put on my makeup in the morning and my daughter wants- or my son for that matter, wants to grab my lipstick and put it on. I feel okay about them doing that. When they say, “Are you going to Salty Girl? Can we go to Salty Girl with you?” That makes me feel really proud. They’re really excited about coming to the shop and seeing what we do.
Leah: How we interact with our community and the events that we put on.
Sarah: People that we help.
Leah: It’s been pretty rewarding.
Sarah: Yeah. And so, Leah’s obviously expecting in a couple of months. And then I have my two. I hope they always look up to us and think that we’re doing things that are changing the world a little bit.
Lisa Belisle: Why is it called SaltyGirl?
Sarah: Do you want to do it?
Leah: Well, I think if you know Sarah and I, we’re two redheads. We’re pretty sassy. We’re confident. And so what a salty girl means to us is just being the best woman you can be, be confident, be beautiful, be sassy. Just be you authentic self.
Sarah: And a little badass.
Leah: Yeah. I forgot that. That’s huge, actually. I think that’s on our packaging. Being a little badass. I think that’s awesome. So that’s what that means.
Lisa Belisle: And is there something special about the fact that you’re here in Maine, with your product line being Maine-based?
Leah: Well, we grew up …
Sarah: I was in college and Leah was starting High School here, so. Leah grew up more so here. But, we … I grew up in Connecticut, so this has always felt more like home. And I lived in Boston for 15 years almost prior to moving up here after I was done with chemo. And it just … Being close to Leah, our other sister, we have a brother that is a merchant marine now. But he’s home, and then my parents, so … It’s amazing just to be close with the family and nature and-
Leah: The ocean has always been part of our lives. I think that salty, too, that’s where is comes from as well. Even when we were in Connecticut, we would always vacation in Maine. Maine’s always been a big part of our lives.
Lisa Belisle: And where do you hope to see you company going in the next 5, 10 years?
Sarah: We’d love to be-
Leah: A national brand.
Sarah: Known nationally by people. We’re definitely working with a lot of boutiques right now. And wellness and cancer centers provide our product as a resource to their patients and customers. And then we’re speaking at a couple of conferences coming up this fall.
Leah: One in New York City, which is really exciting. Being from lowly southern Maine.
Sarah: We have a really great partnership with Dana-Farber. So we’re doing their Young and Strong conference next week. So, yeah. I hope we’re able to touch as many lives as possible, especially … Our biggest message is definitely … Why we started with he cosmetic line too, I don’t think we said this. After you lose you hair, and especially your eyelashes, putting on makeup becomes very difficult. So putting on lipstick became really important to me. I put on a scarf because I just didn’t like the wig. And I put on a colorful lipstick and I felt empowered. I felt, “Okay, I kind of look like myself right now.” And we want to be able to share that message with women.
Whether you’re going through treatment or some other kind of journey, that’s how we wanna share.
Leah: That’s what we wanna share with women.
I think it’s pretty special and pretty cool at the same time that we’ve developed a line that caters to women going through treatment, and women who don’t have cancer. We all have something in common.
Lisa Belisle: Sisters Sarah Kelly and Leah Robert are the founders of SaltyGirl Boutique and a natural cosmetic line called SaltyGirl Beauty. Thanks for coming in today, and that you for bringing your product and your spirit, your beautiful spirits into the world.
Sarah: Thank you so much for this.
Leah: Thank you for having us.
Lisa Belisle: You have been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 326. Our guests have included Leah Robert, Sarah Kelly, and Kevin Browne. For more information on our guests, and extended interviews, visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a previous of each week’s show, sign up for our E-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook Page. Follow me on twitter as Dr. Lisa and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram.
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This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. Join us again next week, and in the meantime may you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producers are Paul Koenig and Brittany Cost. Our assistant producer is Shelby Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy. And our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle.
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Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio show number 323, airing for the first time on Sunday, November 26, 2017. Today’s guests are Sal Scaglione and Dana Heacock, owners of Abacus, and Leigh Kellis, owner of The Holy Donut. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest and is located in the heart of the Old Port, 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space, including Ingunn Joergensen, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy, and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at Artcollectormaine.com.
Lisa Belisle: Sal Scaglione and Dana Heacock are the owners of Abacus Gallery which was started in 1971 as a small shop and now has grown to five locations around Maine. I love your store and thank you for coming in today.
Sal Scaglione: Thanks.
Dana Heacock: Thank you for having us.
Lisa Belisle: On a technicality I guess, you were not born in Maine, your store was not born in Maine, I should say.
Dana Heacock: Only on technicality.
Lisa Belisle: This was in your mother’s garage?
Dana Heacock: Well, not quite. We practically lived there. We’ve rented a little store space in town in Bennington, Vermont that was eight feet wide. It had been a taxi dispatch stand.
Lisa Belisle: How did that happen? What was it about? Why did you decided you wanted to start that initial store back in 1971?
Sal Scaglione: Well, let’s say, I think it was because we were at RISD, Rhode Island School of Design and we had this vision of buying and selling things, always had that longing to do something like that, not knowing much about how to go about doing it. The space that we rented in Bennington just came up. I drove by and thought, Wouldn’t this be great?” Of course, we had practically less than no money and so we cobble together the interior by taking out a staircase, our landlady at that time gave us permission to take down her chicken coop and we used the boards to cover the walls and followed the trucks to the dump that were disposing of two by fours and all sorts of used things and we drag them back to the little space and made shelving and counter and actually got things from our classmates at RISD to sell in consignment back then.
Dana Heacock: We put up posters on canvas advertising that students could give us their work after it was graded and we pay them after we sold it if we sold it. We were truly just kids. I was on the six months done with being a teenager when the store opened.
Lisa Belisle: What did you focus on when you’re at RISD?
Dana Heacock: Sal was in the architecture department and I changed my focus about every semester.
Lisa Belisle: Yours was broadly-based?
Dana Heacock: Yes, it was.
Lisa Belisle: What did you end up doing with your architecture background, Sal?
Sal Scaglione: I never graduated as an architect but that desire was sort of a closet architect. What we’re doing now, we’ve designed and built several other owned houses and the stores that we’re in. We’re using it in that sense. I’m getting to actually do what I thought I was going to do in a different way but very rewarding.
Lisa Belisle: Where are you originally from?
Sal Scaglione: A suburb of Cleveland.
Lisa Belisle: You’re originally, Dana, you’re originally from Vermont?
Dana Heacock: No.
Lisa Belisle: Okay.
Dana Heacock: No, Vermont was just a tiny little piece of my life. I was born about three miles from here in Portland.
Lisa Belisle: At Mercy or Maine Med?
Dana Heacock: In Maine Med which all those years go, it’s called Portland General Hospital.
Lisa Belisle: How did you somehow, I know how you ended up down in Rhode Island but how did you end up in Bennington?
Dana Heacock: My family had moved there from Farmington, Maine back in the 1970s and it was all brand new to me and I love to go back from school and visit just because there was an excitement of a new place. I didn’t know Vermont very well at the time.
Lisa Belisle: How did each of you get interested in art and architecture?
Dana Heacock: For me, I think that’s always been there. When I was probably 13, 14 years old I used to do charcoal drawings of area lighthouse and sold them. My mom was always a big influence on me. She was always painting and exhibiting her paintings in artist shows.
Sal Scaglione: I had probably unusual beginning, I used to lay on my stomach in the living room and pretend I was designing things with undersides of furniture and putting things together and building things mentally and physically with little parts and thinking, “Oh, there must be something wrong with me.” Until I went to RISD where I found all people who thought like I did. I thought, “Okay, this is validation.” That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me and of course that’s where we met. Dana and I had.
Lisa Belisle: When did you first meet?
Sal Scaglione: It was 1969.
Dana Heacock: We’re both from the same small dormitory building on the RISD campus. I’m sure we met within days of school beginning.
Lisa Belisle: That’s a fairly significant chunk of time that you’ve now been together.
Sal Scaglione: Yeah, that’s being kind.
Lisa Belisle: You met before I was born, and I’m somewhat oldish, at the very least, middle aged. Somehow, you’ve been able to not only create a business but grow a business and maintain a good relationship with one another, I’m assuming because you’re still here.
Dana Heacock: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: How were you able to do that?
Dana Heacock: It’s challenging at times, that’s for sure. There’s not a lot of separate time because we work together and live together.
Sal Scaglione: All in all, it’s a good thing so we’re still here. In fact, this is how I got to Maine. The first time I came to Maine was an overnight trip. A classmate of ours allowed us to use her boyfriend’s Volkswagen bug to drive up to Maine. Dana said, “You need to see Maine.” It was February, of course the best time to come to Maine for your first time and we drove up in the Volkswagen bug and Dana thought we could stay at his grandparent’s cabin because he thought he knew where the key was but it was boarded up and not happening. We stayed in Volkswagen bug in February, it’s not the easiest thing to do. Of course, they had no heat and we had to drive around. That’s what we did, that was my first trip to Maine and as we left Boothbay Harbor, I said, “Well, I really did love it and I’ll be back again I’m sure.” Here I am.
Lisa Belisle: That is how you started your first Maine store in Boothbay Harbor was because you had a family connection up in that area?
Dana Heacock: Our little store in Vermont was not on a road to success. It was very small scale like kids with a lemonade stand. I knew from growing up and summering at Ocean Point that Boothbay Harbor was the one place I knew that there were lots and lots of people. At that time, it just seemed to make a lot of sense to be located there.
Sal Scaglione: We each did other jobs to support the store when we started in Bennington. Honestly, it was not viable. We did all sorts of things from house cleaning to we’ve worked for a concert flutist who had a repair shop and we made pads for him. We sprung concert flutes. We did anything. Anything to survive, that’s what we did.
Lisa Belisle: How many years did you need to keep having these dual careers?
Dana Heacock: Because we started so small, it took a number of years. I think it was in the 7th year that we had the store that we’re able to move to a bigger location in Boothbay Harbor. At that point, everything began to change. It began to grow quickly.
Lisa Belisle: Having been inside Abacus, I’ve noticed there’s quite a variety of different things that you offer. Very small, very beautiful things, artwork, how do you curate the things that come in to the store?
Dana Heacock: I suppose one thing they have in common is they’re just things that we think are really cool. Some of those things are 10 or 15 or $20 and some of them are much more expensive. I want the stores to be an environment where anybody can come in and enjoy it. I don’t want it to be up on a pedestal, it’s supposed to be fun.
Lisa Belisle: I think you’ve accomplished that because I’ll go into one of your stores in Kennebunkport or Boothbay Harbor or here in Portland and I’ll notice you have some very affordable things by the cash register, you’ll have some jewelry. I think I bought a bracelet when I was in Ogunquit once. Then you have some larger items that people buy presumably for things like weddings and the birth of babies. It just makes art more accessible it seems. Was that a goal?
Dana Heacock: Yes, yes.
Sal Scaglione: Definitely.
Dana Heacock: Absolutely. I think we want everyone to be able to come in and enjoy even if they’re not buying, to enjoy the whole experience. Then, if somebody chooses to buy, we like the idea of having something in wide, wide price range so everyone can take something home.
Lisa Belisle: You have lovely prints and calendars that are associated with your store. How did those come to be?
Sal Scaglione: That is Dana’s artwork. We publish a calendar that we’ve been publishing for decades. We sell it in our stores and we actually sell it around the country also. It’s the Dana Heacock calendar and that has been the springboard for fine art prints, giclée prints on watercolor paper or on canvas available in all kinds of sizes from 6 by 6s up to very large canvases. That’s been very successful. He’s the artist for that.
Lisa Belisle: How far in advance do you create your … Are they paintings that are made into …
Dana Heacock: The originals are paintings. I start working about a year ahead of when a calendar is printed but that calendar is already a year ahead because it’s being sold. Now I’m working on 2019.
Lisa Belisle: There seems to be a theme that goes along with these calendars. Is that something that is intentional?
Dana Heacock: They’re supposed to evoke a feeling of the month without being overly literal about it.
Lisa Belisle: If you’ve been doing this for decades, how do you continue to swap it up? I mean, we all think of February as being hearts and candies and flowers but you can, I’m assuming you’d want to do something different every year. How do you figure that out?
Dana Heacock: I try to collect images wherever I go. Sometimes I’ll just see something and it just speaks to me as a calendar poster. I try to save it as a digital photo image so I can work from it later in my studio.
Lisa Belisle: I have always loved calendars and I love the type of calendar that you create so I get one every year but when you started this, we were less in a digital age and we’ve evolved into this really digital age and yet I still am drawn to your calendars and I’m guessing other people are because they’re sold across the country. Does that surprise you?
Dana Heacock: No, I think as the world moves more and more into a very techy place, I think people are always craving things that have a human connection.
Sal Scaglione: I think they buy them, they want them in their homes. They’re a piece of art first, and they are calendar, second. It’s not the kind of thing that you gotten from the insurance company where you’re going to put the little notes for the appointments and write in them. I think people want this little piece of art and it’s great because they change the art every month because of what it is so they’re changing the art and they look forward to the next month.
Lisa Belisle: It’s funny because my grandmother who lives in Cape Porpoise, I started buying her these calendars and one year I was a little late in actually giving her a Christmas gift which is always a calendar, she’s like, “Oh, I’m so relieved because every year I look forward to getting this calendar,” as I guess this piece of art that you’re describing. It actually has become an important ritual and an important thing between the two of us. I wonder how many other people out there have that same emotional response to this.
Dana Heacock: We get a lot of similar feedback from people.
Sal Scaglione: He’s being humble.
Dana Heacock: I find it especially rewarding, I’ve had a number of medical institutions choose my artwork to use to decorate lobbies and treatment rooms. A number of them are in Maine so my artwork is out there in front of a lot of people because of those places.
Lisa Belisle: One of the things about being in the arts is that there is the need to support artists, I mean, you can’t have art and be a working artist without somebody to actually buy your work. It feels to me like one of the things you’re doing is making it possible for people to continue to work as artist by having their pieces in your store.
Dana Heacock: I know from talking to a lot of the people we buy from that Abacus is the number one account for some of these people anywhere which is rewarding but also a little bit scary.
Lisa Belisle: That’s some pressure on you I would think.
Sal Scaglione: Yes, just a little bit of pressure.
Lisa Belisle: Yes.
Sal Scaglione: It is, it really is rewarding to know that you’re helping people. That’s part of their living and makes us feel good to know I would buy from literally hundreds of sources. It’s good to know that people appreciate, people are making things appreciate a place to be able to sell to and be part of their lives.
Lisa Belisle: How did it come to be called Abacus?
Sal Scaglione: It’s a little bit of a funny story. When we were trying to name our first store back in Bennington, Vermont, of course you go through all the same things, you’re [toring 00:18:18] with names. We liked the idea of the texture and the visuals of an abacus and we joked about it because it began with an A then a B and I said we can always be first in the phone book. Of course now we don’t even have phone books. What’s more ironic is back then when we had our little store we didn’t even have a phone. If anyone had to call us, there was a phone booth outside of our door and we gave people that number and people walking by would hear the phone ring answered and somebody would say, “You see that little door over there? Could you go in and ask the two guys if they could come out to the phone?” That was our first phone. We didn’t really have a listing back then either.
Lisa Belisle: It seems as though having talked to people who own their own businesses, there’s often not much of a downtime. You don’t get to go to work at nine and leave at five. You are often-
Sal Scaglione: That’s the downside, you definitely need to love what you do.
Lisa Belisle: How do you make that work after decades of doing this?
Sal Scaglione: It’s a question we’re still asking.
Dana Heacock: You take the little moments, if there’s an hour here, two hours there.
Sal Scaglione: You need to see the work not as a work. When you’re working for yourself, what we do feels like this wonderful life-long hobby.
Dana Heacock: We also look at all of our stores … I enjoy working in them. I love being out there with the people because sometimes you get a little bit behind the scenes. You’re taken away from what it is that you used to do at the beginning so I love being in the store. They’re like our living rooms. It’s like having five living rooms and you get to meet all these wonderful people and some had become life-long friends.
Lisa Belisle: Do each of your stores have a different style or a different feel to them? I mean, if you talk about them being like your living room, I’ve been in I want to say at least three of them. They have a similarity but do they feel different to you?
Dana Heacock: They do, sometimes I think that grows out of the building or the space that they’re located in. It gives them part of the feeling that they have.
Lisa Belisle: If you are describing the stores that you have in each of the various places, what comes up for you? Actually, now I’m thinking about it, I’ve been in the Freeport store too. You have Boothbay Harbor, Kennebunkport, Portland, Freeport, and Ogunquit.
Dana Heacock: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been in all of your stores actually so I have a sense of what each of them feels like. What do they feel like to each of you?
Dana Heacock: Boothbay always feels like going home because we spent so many years there in the early days just the two of us running the shop and because it’s in a building that at one time was a house and has separate rooms. There are four or five different rooms that comprise the store, customers call us this too that they think it just feels homey.
Sal Scaglione: The store in Boothbay actually, the first space we were in when we rented the space before we own the building. It is what is now the print room where we show a lot of Dana’s work and a few other things in there. That was the first store in Boothbay Harbor, very small, it’s about 500 square feet. We actually lived in the back of it in about a 150 square feet. Back then that’s where we, if you can call it living in there but that’s where we slept. It was the minimal stock room and everything and we used to take our showers down at the Tugboat Inn. I had to pay showers because we didn’t have those facilities in our building. Every morning we take our quarters and go down and that’s where we went. If the water was cold, it didn’t matter because we only allotted one quarter for the day, that was it.
Lisa Belisle: That’s very impressive.
Sal Scaglione: Very humble beginnings.
Lisa Belisle: I guess so. What was the next store after that?
Dana Heacock: Portland.
Lisa Belisle: When you think about that store, how does that feel to you? How would you describe it?
Dana Heacock: It just feels like Portland because it’s red brick which speaks of Portland to me.
Sal Scaglione: It seemed a very different side of what we did for Boothbay Harbor because it was in the city so it felt much more urban and it was another adventure, another challenge for us.
Lisa Belisle: The next store?
Dana Heacock: The next one was Freeport. I think at the time we opened the store in Freeport we felt that two stores was just about all we could handle. We’ve been on a trip to the Pacific Northwest and fell in love with some of the island communities in Puget Sound and like often happens when we travel, we start imagining, “What would it be like if we had a store out here?” Because we were already thinking about it, when we return to Maine we found the for sale sign on the little building and I think we’re already primed mentally. We both just like to build things. I think that’s a primary impetus for doing anything. We like to build things and that building was a sad little building with a lot of potential.
Lisa Belisle: Then, what came next? Was it Ogunquit or Kennebunkport?
Dana Heacock: Kennebunkport.
Lisa Belisle: Kennebunkport, tell me about that.
Sal Scaglione: The original one was a little bit smaller. We’re in the same space now and we had the need to expand and the restaurant next door fortunately was going to be for sale, in the same building. We bought the restaurant, sold off all the equipment and expanded the store into what that one is now. It’s I don’t know how many thousand square feet but it’s fairly large and it’s worked out very well.
Lisa Belisle: Ogunquit is your baby?
Dana Heacock: It is.
Sal Scaglione: Ogunquit is the new, if new, I say new. We bought that building about ten years ago. It was I happen to be delivering something down south of there and I drove pass through town and saw the for sale sign on it that used to be Joe Allen’s restaurant from New York. We used to eat there out on their deck and I saw the sign. I pulled in the parking lot and called Dana immediately and I said, “Guess what?” He said, “I don’t know, it’s going to be very expensive.”
Dana Heacock: We had looked in Ogunquit over the years a number of times and the problem is that being the little beach town that it is, a lot of the retail store spaces that were for rent were just way too small to do what we wanted to do. When this building came up it felt like this is the one chance to come in here and do a large store.
Sal Scaglione: We repeated buying a restaurant, we bought it, the whole thing, lock, stock, and barrel, sold off all the equipment and then proceeded to completely gutted, changed the entire building. Taking out floors and actually lowering part of the floor in one of the areas and just went for it, just said okay we’re going to just do this. Of course, a lot of people thought it was a little sketchy being on the other side of the street and we said, “Well, we’ll take our chances. I think it will work.”
Dana Heacock: It’s been fun being in Ogunquit because now it feels like we’re the anchor store right in the center of town wherein a town like Freeport with 300 national retailers we still feel like the two little kids playing store.
Sal Scaglione: About two years ago we did something that we had in the back of our minds when we bought the building and we added a couple thousand square feet. We added what looks like another building to the end of this building and it gave us a little bit different space. It’s a modern, little industrial, cement floor, it has a mezzanine and it feels good. Now the building looks like three separate little buildings that we’ve remodeled, redone, and moved our store into it. We’re very happy with it. It’s been very successful.
Lisa Belisle: Now it seems like the paving project down there has come to an end so that must be a relief for you.
Sal Scaglione: Yes, it is over. It is definitely over and we’re all happy.
Lisa Belisle: Anymore stores that you have in your thoughts, in your minds? It seems like if something comes up then …
Dana Heacock: We’ll never say never but I think we have our hands full.
Lisa Belisle: What about you, Sal? Would you agree with that?
Sal Scaglione: I would have to agree with that, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: I appreciate your coming in today and talking with me. It’s interesting because as you’re talking I feel like my mom would always do things based on her children and I told you that I have nine younger brothers and sisters. I feel like it’s almost as if you can hear you’re talking about your five children that you’re dating them according to what stage you were in your life and artistically so that’s an interesting conversation for me to have.
Sal Scaglione: It is, it is how we think of it and then we have of course a wonderful crew everywhere. They’ve become part of the family, they’re all part of the family. That’s another rewarding part of having the stores, getting to know all of them.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Sal Scaglione and Dana Heacock who are the owners of Abacus Gallery which was started in 1971 as a small shop in a different state but soon followed by five stores here in the state of Maine. I really appreciate you taking time out of your very, very busy schedules to come in and talk to me today and also appreciate the fact that you’re bringing art to people like me and others throughout the state and really around the world. Thank you.
Sal Scaglione: We’re glad that you like what we do.
Dana Heacock: Thank you.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is also brought to you by Aristelle, a lingerie boutique on Exchange Street in Portland’s Old Port, where every body is seen as a work of art and beauty is celebrated from the inside out. Shop with us in person or online at aristelle.com.
Lisa Belisle: Leigh Kellis is the owner of Holy Donut. This past year, she was selected as U.S. Small Business Administration’s Maine’s Small Business Person of the Year. Congratulations.
Leigh Kellis: Thank you very much.
Lisa Belisle: Thanks for coming in because you are incredibly busy.
Leigh Kellis: We’re pretty busy. Three shops keeps us fairly busy, yes.
Lisa Belisle: Did you know that when you launched your first store that donuts were going to be such a big deal?
Leigh Kellis: Not entirely. I knew that donuts were a big deal which is why I was craving them and eating them in my life so badly but that was a personal craving. About six and a half years ago where I just needed to eat them and couldn’t find them in the form that I wanted them which was in a wholesome kind of more healthier-ish way. I didn’t know they’d be a big deal in terms of employing so many people and giving us the opportunity to build three shops and counting.
Lisa Belisle: What was it six years ago that had you saying, “I really need to eat some donuts, some good quality donuts”?
Leigh Kellis: It’s just a craving, I think we all have cravings and I know I do and I just wanted comfort food and I couldn’t find a donut that wasn’t mass produced or from a factory. I was just disenchanted with that and discouraged so I decided to start making my own.
Lisa Belisle: You’re known for having donuts that lots of different people with dietary issues can eat. You have gluten-free donuts, you have I believe vegan donuts. That’s not something that every donut shop is thinking about.
Leigh Kellis: No, and somehow it just evolved that way. If I were to do it all all over again I would have never seen it in incarnation as it is now but it just slowly blossomed. I started with one recipe which is just the Maine potato donut and then I just started saying, hey, I had all these energy at the beginning to do it all and make up recipes and sit in the kitchen and experiment. I have none of that energy now, zero. I do not experiment anymore but for the first few years I just had unlimited amounts of donut energy.
Lisa Belisle: Why go with the Maine potato donut?
Leigh Kellis: That was a suggestion from a friend in town here who owns a well-known pizza place. He said, “Hey, you should use potatoes. It makes everything better.” I said, “Okay,” I really wasn’t sure what the outcome would be but I started experimenting and when I tasted it I said yes, this is exactly what I’ve been looking for. Moist and yummy and delicious and wholesome. I just said, I think this is sellable.
Lisa Belisle: Did it surprise you at the time that there was such a thing as a Maine potato donut?
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, I mean the potato donut thing was not necessarily specific to Maine but then once I started putting all the pieces together as a sellable marketable product, we’re in Maine, it’s the land of the potatoes. We need a donut shop, home run. This could work, this could be a good business model.
Lisa Belisle: I remember the first time I had a potato donut, it was in the county so that’s where you get a lot of potatoes. It was probably the most delicious thing I had ever had because it was fresh out of the fryer which of course makes it not super healthy but there was something about it that tasted really different than your average let’s say Dunkin’ Donut.
Leigh Kellis: Totally.
Lisa Belisle: Not to disparage Dunkin’ Donuts but just the taste, it had a really different and more of a solidity to it I think.
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, it’s a little denser, it a little more velvety and that it’s not just mixed with water. A lot of places just how it use a mix and add water but ours are just yummy.
Lisa Belisle: Where did this interest in experimenting with cooking come from? Is this something that you had always had?
Leigh Kellis: No, I launched into this with no business experience and no baking experience. It’s just as a passion for food, that’s all. I just think food is a really important part of life and it adds a lot to your day. I think eating well is pretty much, it should be priority and it is for me and I think it should be for most people because it’s an opportunity to have some enjoyment three times a day so why not maximize it.
Lisa Belisle: You grew up in Portland and went to Deering High School. What were things like as, I want to say child but as a high school student? What did you have in your mind that you might want to do for a job?
Leigh Kellis: The only thing I ever cared about was music. I love to sing, I used to play piano. I’ve been creatively distracted for the past six years but I always thought that my mission in life was to be involved in music. I had no other real concept of what else to do. I’ve never been career-driven or minded. The donut thing was perfect because it was extremely creative and extremely experimental and that’s my comfort zone is doing things that are completely unstructured which the business was at first. I didn’t have a solid business plan, I just leapt. I took a leap, started making donuts, said, “Okay, I’m going to figure this out, bring them to people and share them and hopefully start selling them.”
Lisa Belisle: Is that what happened that you brought the donuts to people and they said, “Wow, these are really good? I need two dozen more of these.”
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, I just brought them to Coffee By Design one dozen and she said, “We’ll sell them.” That was on Washington Ave and every day I brought her a dozen and I just said, “Okay, they’re buying them. Somebody’s buying them,” that’s giving me confirmation this could be a business concept. Then it started to blossom from there, one dozen and two dozen and I hit the pavement trying to sell more of them. That was about 40 dozen a week for the first several months.
Lisa Belisle: All of them yourself? You were cooking all of these yourself?
Leigh Kellis: Yup, for a time with little forks.
Lisa Belisle: Wow, that’s a lot of work.
Leigh Kellis: It was a ton of work so I started really early in the morning and then it’s when my dad jumped in a few months in and said, “You just can’t afford to hire anybody so I’m going to help you at 6 AM every day.” He started helping me every day for months as a volunteer at 6 AM to get the business going.
Lisa Belisle: What was your dad’s background?
Leigh Kellis: He’s a serial entrepreneur. He had done many different concept business ideas and he happen to had just retired from the insurance business. He’s like, “I need something to do, I’ll be there at 6 AM every day.” He came to deliver my donuts every day at 6 AM.
Lisa Belisle: In part, this was perfect for him because as an entrepreneur, you do end up doing whatever you need to do.
Leigh Kellis: Exactly.
Lisa Belisle: You don’t say, “This is not my job.” Everything is your job if it’s your business.
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, he thought the donut business seemed like a fun thing to do so he said, “Hey, I’m in. Let’s do it. Let’s go for it.”
Lisa Belisle: What was that like to have the chance to work so closely with your father because not all of us have that opportunity?
Leigh Kellis: It was interesting. At 6 AM every day, not always the chattiest time of day for me but in retrospect, I really appreciate his help. It was absolutely unusual, uncommon, and incredible that he showed up to help me every single day at 6 AM for seven months until he helped me open the shop and then he continued to show up every day at 6 AM for years.
Lisa Belisle: That’s a lot of love for a daughter.
Leigh Kellis: I know. He was a very good example of a dad who shows up and helps. Didn’t miss a day.
Lisa Belisle: In all those years.
Leigh Kellis: For years.
Lisa Belisle: Was this also a good example for the people that you brought in to start helping you in your stores?
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, it started out really small. We had just one or two employees at first in addition to my dad and I and it grew pretty quickly. We started to feel that we couldn’t keep up with the demand. It was just me cooking donuts, frying donuts. My dad doing everything else, running the counter, mopping the floors, washing the dishes, buying supplies. We just had to slowly accumulate employees and fortunately we learned as we went because the growth requires, it was a huge learning curve but it was steady enough that we were able to keep up with it. Now we’re at 80 employees and three stores and seven days a week business and it’s a lot but thank God there’s so many wonderful, qualified and competent people involved that it makes it work.
Lisa Belisle: Where was your first store?
Leigh Kellis: Park Ave, right over by the Sea Dogs Stadium. It’s a little old convenience store that was my dad and I just gutted and scrubbed and painted and winged it.
Lisa Belisle: That’s the one that has the big paintings of donuts on the side?
Leigh Kellis: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Then your next store was that Exchange Street?
Leigh Kellis: Yup.
Lisa Belisle: That must have been a big step because that’s right in the heart of the Old Port and I’m guessing that the cost of opening that type of store would be quite a bit higher than-
Leigh Kellis: It was insane, yes. This business has really been founded on many leaps of faith. It really, really, really has and they keep working. It’s a testament to doing something with passion and faith which sometimes runs a little low on times I get a little nervous about how big it’s gotten and keeping track of everything. My brother-in-law who’s my business partner, yes we just talked about, he said, “Faith over fear. Faith over fear,” that’s our mantra all the time because in small business there’s always fear. There’s always fear of competition, there’s always fear of things just falling apart. It’s hard to keep things going and still have integrity and run a business according to our values and keep paychecks clear. There’s a lot of details but faith over fear is definitely our mantra.
Lisa Belisle: Did you have a sense that faith was important when you’re younger?
Leigh Kellis: No. I don’t think I ever had a great foundation. My parents are very deep introspective people but we didn’t have an actual structured foundation at all but as I get older I realized it’s important to choose positivity or you can call it faith or you can call it all kinds of things. Trust that what you’re doing is what you’re meant to be doing and I do believe this is what I’m meant to be doing so that’s a big part of feeling faith of keeping it going and seeing what the next step is if we grow or if we don’t grow, trusting that whatever happens next is what is meant to be.
Lisa Belisle: What is it that has you convinced that this is what you’re meant to be doing?
Leigh Kellis: I love feeding people. I love that people come in and they leave happy. The comments we get on Facebook and on our website that they had such a good experience and that they were treated nicely and that they love the donuts, all of that stuff just I love that. It makes me feel encouraged. That it adds a little something to somebody’s day in a world that sometimes doesn’t feel so awesome and positive so a donut shop should be a little moment, a break where you go, “Okay, things are good, we’re good. It smells good in here, the music is good,” that’s the whole point.
Lisa Belisle: It’s also donuts are the thing that many people start their days with, that’s something that people celebrate with. There’s an interesting intersection with the positivity in people’s lives, really.
Leigh Kellis: Absolutely and the nostalgia. People say constantly, “This reminds of my grandmother, that makes me happy,” and I have a positive memory with my grandmother and I just think, “Yes,” exactly, that’s what makes me feel like this is the right thing to do.
Lisa Belisle: Is it interesting to you that we have such a focus in one sort of part of our brains on health and fitness and no white sugar or no white flour, no white potatoes, no carbs and yet you have lines outside your doors and sometimes it’s the same people.
Leigh Kellis: Totally. It’s very interesting and I think it’s completely, it makes sense because we know we all want deliciousness every single person. We all try to be good and we try to be regimented and it’s just everybody deep down just wants enjoyment. The good news is we use good ingredients and unbleached flour and local pureed berries and roasted sweet potatoes and lemons and all that stuff. It’s kind of like yes it’s a donut but it’s not that bad. It’s kind of like giving people permission to indulge a little bit.
Lisa Belisle: Well, and really if people are eating small amounts of desserts, it’s not. I think the bigger problem is that people want to deprive themselves of everything and then they get so that they need to have too much or they need to just go way beyond just a normal amount of donut eating I guess or pastry eating.
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, absolutely, America is totally dysfunctional with food. It’s a fact. We’re all confused, “Are we supposed to eat this gluten free, not gluten free, vegan? What am I supposed to eat?” and I don’t have the answer exactly except eat what you like, stop when you’re full, move on.
Lisa Belisle: I think that’s probably a pretty good way to look at it.
Leigh Kellis: It’s kind of the only way at this point because all the craziness and the diet and the deprivation does not really work that well in the big picture.
Lisa Belisle: No, that’s true. You have a lot of different types of donuts, you were just talking about pureed berries and lemons. Did you yourself come up with each of these individual recipes?
Leigh Kellis: Most of them. I just kind of added to the offerings, things that I was craving, “Oh pomegranate sounds good, let’s figure that out. Maple, let’s figure that out. Let’s figure out pureed blueberries on a donut.” I didn’t invent these concepts but just we tried a lot of things that didn’t work but the ones that did work were things that I thought the general public would just love. We have Allen’s Coffee Brandy is just a funny one. I thought of sitting at a bar one night, I thought, “Oh it’s the perfect main booze, let’s throw it on a donut,” and people love it.
Lisa Belisle: Isn’t that like one of the top selling liquors in the state of Maine?
Leigh Kellis: Definitely, maybe not in Portland but I think everywhere else. People I think consume many gallons of Allen’s Coffee Brandy.
Lisa Belisle: What are the most popular donuts that you sell?
Leigh Kellis: We sell a lot of the chocolate sea salt which I can see why. I think salt and chocolates are really good combo, it’s a little unusual. Yeah, I would say that’s the top, the Cannolis are pretty good with the ricotta filling. Yeah, people just love donuts.
Lisa Belisle: What are your favorites?
Leigh Kellis: I like the sweet potato, I think it’s interesting, I’ve never seen that anywhere else, I think it’s really good with ginger glaze.
Lisa Belisle: What types of stories have your heard around your donuts when people put something up on Facebook like make a comment about how this reminds them of their grandparents? What types of things have stayed with you?
Leigh Kellis: A lot of people have said that they had an association with our shop and they would come in with their dad and their older parent and enjoy a lemon donut for example every Sunday and then all of a sudden their dad died. I’ve heard these stories many times and so they said they still are able to connect with that feeling by coming into the shop and having something in their honor of somebody who’s passed and I’ve heard that multiple times. It’s totally heartwarming that people can … I think our shop appeals to all ages which is what I like. We have a total vary demographic, we get kids, we get tons of older people who just come in and sit in the afternoon with their friends and donuts and coffee appeals to all ages. I don’t think we’re too trendy that we’re excluding the older population, I absolutely love that to see them coming in because some places here in town are a little too hipster and trendy that older people would never go. We’re kind of right in the middle, in other words it makes me happy that people can share the experience no matter what their age.
Lisa Belisle: I’m kind of fascinated by the idea of baked goods, impart because I have a child who’s 16, she’s my youngest and she works at a coffee shop and she has this really significant interest in baked goods which I think is kind of a … It’s not necessarily what I would expect of what we call the younger generation because they’re supposed to be known as these digital natives and everything is all about YouTube and social media. I actually think that there’s this important tangibility that people are seeking and I think they’re seeking it from a younger age. Is that something that you’ve noticed as well?
Leigh Kellis: Well, I’d like to think that younger people are still human and interested in the arts and food and using their hands in creating things. I too, I get really nervous, my daughter is 14 and she’s starting to actually lose interest in social media which is a huge turning point. Yeah, like I said I was nervous for a while that she wouldn’t really have a concept or grasp of the real world because there’s so much on the screen. I think we should give these kids a little credit and hope that there’s still interest in creating things in old world crafts I’m hoping but I think it’s a really good thing to cultivate and nurture in them for sure.
Lisa Belisle: Has your daughter spend any time working in any of your stores or working on donuts in general?
Leigh Kellis: She has. She spends most of her time in the ocean surfing but when given the opportunity she loves to glaze donuts.
Lisa Belisle: That’s something that’s very tangible then.
Leigh Kellis: Yes, sometimes she resists it and she’s, “I don’t want to be in the business,” I said, “Well, it’s an opportunity and it’s a job and you might want to at least participate a little bit at this point.” I may force her to work the counter one day a week soon. I think it would be really good for her.
Lisa Belisle: It’s not the first time I’ve heard this from someone who has a child who’s a teenager who has a small business. There is something really important about being part of the business in those small part that keeps the family going, really, and that’s something that we used to have, we used to have small farms where everybody go involve from really young ages but we don’t have this much anymore.
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, and I definitely don’t want her to be spoiled and think that she doesn’t have to work. I think pretty soon I probably will implement that, she just turned 14 so she can do a worker’s permit to get the concept of working and participating in the family business which, yes, is a special thing nowadays. It’s not that common to have a family business where you can really participate and make money and have fun and work hard and contribute. Yeah, I think it’s a really valuable lesson.
Lisa Belisle: How about dealing with the public? Is that something that she had a chance to do having this association with Holy Donut?
Leigh Kellis: Not really, I think she needs a little more practice. I think this would be good for her, she’s sometimes a little reserved. Yeah, it’s definitely very public dealing with a line of people at times and you have to smile the whole time and beyond. It’s not easy.
Lisa Belisle: No, it’s not easy and having been in only two of your stores, I think your third is in Scarborough is that right?
Leigh Kellis: Correct.
Lisa Belisle: I haven’t been to that one yet, I’ve been to the other two stores and they’re busy, they’re very, very busy. The people who are behind the counter are constant motion, always very pleasant but there’s a system in place. I always feel a little nervous, “I better know what the donuts are that I want before I get up to the front.”
Leigh Kellis: It is really nerve-racking.
Lisa Belisle: It is very nerve-racking because you see the donuts, the quantities are going down and you’re hoping you’re going to get the one you want. The people are really professional and really pleasant and both of, actually all three of my kids have worked in the service industry at one time or another. I think that that’s so important that even under stress you’d be able to interact with other humans that aren’t necessarily your teammates at school or your classmates at school.
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, it’s an incredible life skill that it’s hard to hone in on that and really be friendly and positive and professional person after person after person. It’s not for everybody. On occasion, I hear feedback and people say, “I came into your store and the person was rude,” I’d say, “We really, really, really try to have people be consistently friendly and smiling,” but people have their moments on occasion.
Lisa Belisle: Yes, we’re all human.
Leigh Kellis: Yes, not that that’s an excuse but there are moments where someone may not be smiling for that ten second window and someone has a bad experience. Yeah, we’re not perfect but we try, we try to be nice.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, you want to have when you have your donut you want to have that positive association with your donut.
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, like with any food in the service industry you just want it to feel pleasant.
Lisa Belisle: You have you said 80 employees?
Leigh Kellis: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: That’s a lot of people to be responsible for.
Leigh Kellis: It is and we have a good network, my brother-in-law is my right hand man and he pretty much manages all of those people. It’s not my forte.
Lisa Belisle: What you consider your forte to be?
Leigh Kellis: At this point I do our social media, I think about donut flavors and I am a single mom and I kind of think about the business and what we’re doing and planning and strategizing but hands on, not at all. I used to make all the donuts myself and it just really totally evolved away from that. I do miss it, I like making donuts but we had to phase out of that to help the business grow and stabilize which I did learn from reading many business books that the best thing to do is to back away which is hard. It’s the hardest part of running a business is letting go of it so that it can be on its own and run itself. That was good wisdom I learned in Michael E. Gerber book.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, I would think that it would hard to do because this is your baby.
Leigh Kellis: It’s like with your children. It’s exactly the same. At some point you have to let them find their way to sustain themselves and exist in the world without you. It’s just the perfect metaphor, it’s very hard but it’s very necessary.
Lisa Belisle: I know that you recently lost your father and at a relatively young age I think.
Leigh Kellis: He was 68 and I think in the big scheme of things it was probably too young. Yes.
Lisa Belisle: As part of this business moving forward without him, the idea that somehow he’s still there?
Leigh Kellis: Yes, believe it or not, I feel him just as strongly now as ever.
Lisa Belisle: Does he help lead any of your decisions or does he help provide advice?
Leigh Kellis: It’s been two weeks but his energy is really strong and his wisdom was really good. I actually feel very comforted by his presence in the cosmos right now and I feel it that’s the kind of person I am. I’m totally open and I’m totally receptive and I’ve been communicating with him. I feel actually very comforted by potentially tapping into his guidance and protection as we move forward with the business. I know he was psyched about the business, he loved it, he was so proud to be a part of it and to watch it grow and to make sure his kids were good. My sister, my brother-in-law and I now pretty much run it and I think my dad is very comforted knowing that the business is doing well and that we all have a job and a place to put our energy and our investments. Yeah, I’m definitely feeling his presence still.
Lisa Belisle: Why did you call your business The Holy Donut?
Leigh Kellis: It was really just a pun, it was not religious or deeply meaningful in any way. I just thought it was kind of funny.
Lisa Belisle: Because of the hole?
Leigh Kellis: Yeah, the donut hole that’s all but then the potato is the holy crop of Maine sort of, it’s such an important part of our economy. I thought it made sense and I think donuts are fairly divine and or sacred as a food so for all of these reasons I just thought it was the perfect name.
Lisa Belisle: Now, I can’t wait to go back to Scarborough and go to that third store and have another one of your donuts. I’ll probably bring my 16-year old or one of my older kids when they’re back from school. I’ve been speaking with Leigh Kellis who is the owner of Holy Donut. This past year she was elected a U.S. Small Business Administration’s Maine Small Business Person of the Year. Congratulations, and thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to come in today.
Leigh Kellis: Thank you very much. My pleasure.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio show number 323. Our guest have included Sal Scaglione and Dana Heacock and Leigh Kellis. For more information on our guests and extended interviews visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Doctor Lisa and see our Love Maine Radio for those on Instagram. We love to hear from you so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, I hope that you have enjoyed our show. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producers are Paul Koenig and Brittany Cost. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine or any of the guest featured here today please visit us at lovemaineradio.com. (music)
Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio show number 322, airing for the first time on Sunday, November 19, 2017. Today’s guests are Shane Diamond, founder of Speak About It and Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest and is located in the heart of the Old Port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space, including Ingunn Joergensen, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy, and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at Artcollectormaine.com
Lisa Belisle: Shane Diamond is the executive director of Speak About It, a Portland¬-based nonprofit promoting consent education and sexual assault awareness at high schools and universities around the world. It’s good to have you in.
Shane Diamond: Thank you. I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about Speak About It.
Shane Diamond: Absolutely. Speak About It was started in 2010 to talk about consent and healthy sexuality in a way that talked about consent positivity and healthy relationships in the context of getting consent so that both people can enjoy it or all people can enjoy it. The show is written originally in 2009 at Bowdoin College where I was a senior, and I was asked to be in that original version. There were eight of us and it was a blast. We thought we would do this thing for the first years and then nobody would care.
It turned out to be way cooler than any of us thought it would be. I graduated in 2010 and I was like this should be everywhere. I sat down with some folks in the administration and they were like okay. I was like, “Wait, what?” I moved to Portland and was working part-time at Bard Coffee and kicked this off. In 2009 when the show was written, all of the dialogue around consent was no means no, go until you hear stop. This is bad. You will burst into flames.
Speak About It was written to counteract that and say yes means yes, and ask for what you want, and be able to talk about healthy sexuality, and what it means to be in a relationship and not be in a sexual relationship that those two things can be separate and what does that look like and how do we talk about it, and giving people language to talk about consent in a way that demystifies the awkwardness of it.
Also, talking a lot about bystander intervention. If I’m at a party and I look a little funny, ways to empower you to step in and say, “Shane, come with me to get a slice of pizza. Let’s go to the bathroom. Let’s go change the music,” to step in and help prevent situations that might lead sexual assault.
Lisa Belisle: What was your initial interest in this? Why did you think that this was an important thing to put out there into the public conversation, I guess?
Shane Diamond: That’s a great question. I think most people are having sex, everyone is talking about sex and no one is talking about how to make it better, how to make it fun and so my wish upon a star unicorn, snowflake dream is that everybody has good sex. I don’t care who you’re having it with or when, if you’re waiting for your wedding night or if you’re not, it should be good, it should be enjoyable. You’re not there to bake a cake, you’re there because you want to enjoy it and hopefully you want the other person to enjoy it.
Speak About It to me is giving people that language to be able to talk about it , to talk about what we want and also where our boundaries are. Through this conversation and through this education and this dialog, we are preventing sexual assault by empowering people to take ownership over their sexuality and speak their minds. Ultimately, we want to end sexual assault. I know that’s not going to happen. We’ve been doing this for seven years. We’re not going to fix it but we can hope to chip away at it and make sure that people have healthier, more positive experiences.
Lisa Belisle: Is it in your mind a problem with communication that can ultimately cause either, one, to not enjoy sex or maybe even want to end up having a sexual assault experience.
Shane Diamond: I think communication is certainly at the heart of it. There have been some studies and people can believe or not believe and of course they’ve been refuted, but one study a few years ago found that the majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated, like 90 something percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a small percentage of people. Most of them are men and many of them were repeat offenders.
Those people, we’re not going to fix. If 95% of assaults are caused by 5% of people, we’re not going to fix those 5% of people. Some people are just bad apples but the other 95% of people who are good, who are well-intentioned, who have good hearts, who if you ask them if they’re going to get consent would say, “Of course, I would. Why wouldn’t I get consent?” People don’t have the language to say, “Hey, can I do this? Does this feel good?” If you think now, I’m 29 so I got a cellphone when I was 16 because I wrecked my car and my parents were like, “Wait, we can’t trust you.” This was when it was 10 cents to send a text message and two to receive. Now, 17, 18-year-olds are coming in college grow up with cellphones, grow up with smartphones. The majority of the way they’re communicating is through technology. Nobody is having face to face conversations anymore about benign stuff.
We’re encouraging people, put the phones down, go out to lunch with someone, talk about the weather, ask about stuff that doesn’t matter so you can practice language, practice communication so when you want to make out with someone, you can look at them and say, “Hey, do you want to make-out?” You’re not going to text them and then look over, smile and wait for them to receive the text and text you back. That’s not how the world works. It’s encouraging people to find their voices and find language that works for them.
Lisa Belisle: See, I can’t help but think this is … It’s a funny place we’ve gotten ourselves to that we are so connected with technology that we are disconnected as humans that we now need to encourage people to go out and learn how to have conversations as humans. I mean it’s not a judgment, I mean it is what it is.
Shane Diamond: I remember being high school and middle school and like calling my friend’s houses and having a conversation with my mother about here’s how you address your friend’s parents and here’s how you answer the phone at our house. Now, people just text each other. Even all of us have smartphones, how often are we calling versus texting. If you’re calling me, it must be important. If it’s something simple, you can just text me but if you’re calling me, it must be important because nobody calls anymore.
Lisa Belisle: That’s true. Generally when my children call me it’s because something bad has happened or they need money or something.
Shane Diamond: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: What type of pushback have you gotten from people who just want sex to be … Don’t have it, just wait forever, we need to be married. I mean there’s so much interesting psychology wrapped around …
Shane Diamond: I think one of the most diverse shows that we do, we’ve been hired by the US naval academy and this is going to be our fourth year there which is really exciting. We speak to their sophomore class every year because the first year they’re there, they’re called plebes and they’re pretty much just run around in uniforms and get tied to desk and stuff. Not actually. They don’t have a lot of freedom. We speak to the sophomores once they’ve gone through that first year of training.
It’s really cool now that all of the upper class men have seen the show and so the seniors were able to say, “Hey, we think this is important in our culture here.” It’s one of the most diverse shows that we do because of the breakdown of the naval academy. They have students from all 50 states, and Puerto Rico, and DC. You have to be highly recommended and so we have a very diverse audience and different opinions.
People love it or they hate us. You have to think about my… I’m trying to think of life like Olympic diving scores. Bear with me on this. In Olympic diving, they give you scores and then the judges immediately throw out the highest in most scores and you’ just look at the ones in the middle. Everywhere, we’re going to get a lot of great praise and we’re going to get people who hate us. If we let those two opinions drive what we do, we’re going to go crazy. A lot of the pushback is people who are religious, people who think that talking about casual sex is bad.
I think people want to see themselves on stage and so folks who are choosing not to have sex or choosing to wait until marriage. We talk about that in the show but we’re also talking about when you have sex or are sexually active. We’re not just talking about P and VG sex. When you’re sexually active, about communication respect and people who aren’t ready, who aren’t at that point often push back against it. Really, we don’t have a ton of negative feedback. We’re very lucky. I mean schools don’t hire us so if they hate us they won’t bring us in but among the schools that we go to, our feedback we’re grateful is pretty positive.
Lisa Belisle: You mentioned the naval academy. What other schools have hired you?
Shane Diamond: We are about to send four separate troops to 41 colleges in the next three weeks. This fall alone, we’re going as far south as Florida. We’ll be at Florida Polytechnic University. We’re heading southern Methodist University in Dallas. We’ll be at Hendricks college in Conway, Arkansas. We’re sending a troop to North Carolina. We’ll have groups in Pennsylvania, Ohio, upstate New York. We do a lot of ivy league schools. We’re at Harvard, Cornell, Penn. We just got hired by the US merchant marine academy outside New York City which will be really fun.
We’re going to Vassar College outside New York City. We are fortunate to do work here in Maine. We work with UNE, SMCC, USM, Colby and now Thomas College. I said Speak About It started at Bowdoin and so they do a show in-house with student actors and we don’t go there but we high-five as we drive up to Colby. We’re sending a group four hours north of Toronto this year to North Bay, Ontario. I’ve instructed them to eat some Timmy Ho’s donuts for me.
Lisa Belisle: When you were starting this as a senior at Bowdoin, did you ever think I’m going to be coordinating all of these people to go all over the country to talk about something that I feel is really important?
Shane Diamond: Never. There were a couple of years in the beginning where I felt like I was holding sand in my hands and just waiting for all of the grains to fall through my fingers. It’s been a remarkable journey and I’m very lucky to have a lot of support from the community. My wife has been incredible supporting me through this. Her partner talks about sex all the time and it probably gets old., but I got into this because I loved being on stage and seeing people’s minds change.
Letting people know that you can talk about it, that it’s okay, that you should be talking about it, that no one is going to light you on fire, that it’s okay to talk about pleasure and seeing people’s faces change when they realize they have power in this. I never thought I would be behind the scenes coordinating spreadsheets to send other people out and I am learning to get that warm, happy, stage feeling by empowering my educators to go out and make that change and then they tell me about it in the office.
Lisa Belisle: Do you still get to go out on stage yourself?
Shane Diamond: I don’t. I actually rewrote the script a couple of years ago so that I don’t know all the lines or I didn’t know my lines. I know the entire script backwards and forwards. I’m hearing it for eight years but it was too much to get on stage and try to coordinate things as the executive director. We do offer some programs that I get to run. We were just at a retirement home talking about consent and communication which was really cool. We do programming for high school juniors and seniors and then college freshmen is our meat and potatoes, but we offer programs for parents of high school students to encourage parents how to have a dialog about consent with their kids.
You were saying that if your kids call, it’s because something bad has happened. We’re encouraging parents to talk to their kids about sex, about sexuality, about communication in ways that are non-threatening so that when something bad happens they … or if something bad happens your kids feel comfortable talking to you, so if you’re in the car and a song comes on, you’re like, “This song is kind of rapey. This song is sort of misogynist.” You can plant those seeds in a way that’s informal and then it’s easier to have more difficult conversations down the road. I get to do that which fills my soul.
Lisa Belisle: I don’t want to undersell my children because, to be cool here, they do call me at other times.
Shane Diamond: I’ve got photos here in the studio.
Lisa Belisle: Exactly. They are really great kids. I am thinking about, you talked about songs coming on the radio and I’m thinking about my daughter who’s a women’s… She’s a gender studies major and what used to be, I guess, called women’s studies but now I get to encompass all genders so that seems more inclusive. She will talk about things coming on… Some things that she watches on television, movies songs on the radio and it really does lead to interesting conversations in the car.
Shane Diamond: Absolutely.
Lisa Belisle: She’s 21 now and this is something that started. We had to start talking about a lot of the stuff when she was much younger. How did you start having these conversations with your parents?
Shane Diamond: My mother is going to kill me. My parents have been divorced almost my entire life. They get along really well and co-parented very well. We were very lucky to have both parents in our lives, my sister and I. I must have been like nine or 10 and I was getting something out of my mom’s purse. She was holding our wallets and I pull out a string of condoms. I was like, “Mom, what is this weird gum, individually packaged weird gum?” She goes, “No, no.” She opens it up and blows up a condom. If you see a blown out condom, it’s like a size of a watermelon. She holds up to me and goes, “Don’t ever let a guy tell you, he’s too big to wear one.”
Lisa Belisle: I love your mom.
Shane Diamond: Now, I’m queer so what are you going to do.
Lisa Belisle: I think that’s great. Again, that must have started when you were much younger, the ability to even have a conversation about that when you were nine.
Shane Diamond: I think my parents were really great about empowering us in our bodies and our choices. My sister and I are both athletes and so we talk a lot about what it meant to be in our bodies and taking care of our bodies obviously from working out in nutrition but also about the relationship our bodies get to have with other people and empowering us to make those decisions and being able to talk frankly about it. I remember talking to my dad about early relationships. He was a straight dude. He wants straight due opinions and passed them on to the two of us. It was helpful to be able to have someone speak bluntly about what’s about to happen and here’s what to look forward to and here’s some speed bumps that can happen and how to talk about it.
Lisa Belisle: You’re sending group in to talk to an older population What’s the difference between what that group is going to say and a group that’s speaking to college freshmen.
Shane Diamond: Yeah. You’re talking to a retirement home?
Lisa Belisle: Yeah.
Shane Diamond: That was super interesting. It’s actually not too dissimilar from talking to college students. I went with my program coordinator and it was just the two of us and really people in retirement communities, they’re living with strangers, meals are provided. They probably aren’t working and so it’s a very similar dynamics living in college and some of these people are with partners, some are widows or widowers and maybe you’re dating again, maybe you’re not but probably haven’t had many conversations about consent because it hasn’t been relevant or no one when they were 20, certainly nobody was having this conversation.
It’s again being able to talk about pleasure and respect and making sure that your partner is awake and excited and is consenting, is agreeing to engage in something. If we say this across the board but if you don’t feel comfortable asking for what you want, you might want to hold off until you’re comfortable asking for it. What does that language sound like? It was awesome. It was a ton of fun. It was the second best question I’ve ever been asked happened at this training.
Lisa Belisle: That would be?
Shane Diamond: Spencer, are you ready to edit?
Spencer: Hit it.
Shane Diamond: We went in and we were talking all about pleasure and consent and one of the women was probably in her 60’s or 70’s raised her hand and asked… She was like, “What are your thoughts on self-pleasure?” We were like, “Girl, get it.” Get into some of the biology about the body changes and so it might take a little bit longer to get the car started and don’t give up. It’s just dynamic change and think about introducing lube and that might be helpful and she was like, “What’s lube?” We were like, “A lubricant K-Y jelly.” She was like, “I know that.” I was like, “If you’ve got any sensitivity to yeast infections, anything with glycerin probably isn’t going to help.” She was like, “Okay, cool.” I was like, I have the best job.
Lisa Belisle: I didn’t really hear anything in there that needed to be edited out really.
Shane Diamond: Perfect.
Spencer: Those were facts.
Shane Diamond: Facts.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah. This conversation that I’m having with you reminds me of a lot of conversations I have as a doctor with, really, it’s young women who come to see me, young men don’t tend to come see me. It’s usually young women that used to be, when I started in medicine 20 years ago, all about birth control. That was the conversation. Nobody wanted to get pregnant and now young women they wanted… They’re not even necessarily interested in the birth control because some of them haven’t even started having sex yet, they just want to have a conversation about sex in general and what things that they need to think about. It’s very interesting that it’s always traditionally was birth control and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and both of those are very negative. You’re talking about something on the other end of the spectrum which is not as negative.
Shane Diamond: We have some programs in the fringes that we’re excited to start working on one of which is really talking about pleasure in the anatomy of pleasure and again, we can talk about this and it can sound like we’re promoting sex or we’re straying from our mission of sexual assault prevention but the more we can talk about owning your body and making empowered informed decisions, this is all primary preventions sexual assault and so in having a conversation about pleasure teaching people that you can ask for pleasure, you can know what feels good and that makes you a better sexual partner and a more communicative one.
This all fits together but really excited to start thinking about how do you talk to people about what your anatomy looks like and how to treat it and how to interact with other people’s anatomy and what words to use. What makes people feel comfortable? What makes people feel sexy? Of course encouraging people to say no or here’s my boundary and this is far as I’m going to go. One of our favorite videos that we like to show as a high school teacher from outside Philadelphia named Al Vernacchio and he does a talk about changing how we talk about sex education, that in America we “overlaid” sex, I’m using air quotes with baseball.
Everybody knows the bases analogies. They’re a little bit different but everybody gets the gist. He breaks it down and says, “That’s really restrictive. In baseball, you can only run the bases in a certain order, in sexual activity you can go anywhere you want and you don’t have to follow a set path. You can start a third base and then run to the outfield and that’s okay.” Baseball makes it sound really competitive. It’s one team against another. It’s a spectator sport.
You’re telling all your friends about it and so his solution is that we think about it instead like pizza because when do you have pizza, when you want to have pizza. What’s the first question? “Hey, do you want to have pizza? What kind of pizza do you like? What’s your flavor? What’s your pleasure?” If we can start having these open ended questions with people in terms of sexual activity, it makes for just much healthier, safer, more enjoyable situations.
Lisa Belisle: You mentioned that your original mission was really, and is, centered around preventing sexual assault and there has been a lot in the news in the last five years really that’s been difficult, really controversial. It probably was never clear cut but it seems like maybe things are even less clear cut than they once were.
Shane Diamond: It’s tricky. On the one hand, we’re seeing in the past few years, we’re seeing more reports of sexual assault on college campuses and one can look at that and say, “It’s because there’s more sexual assault happening,” but the stats are actually relatively the same. It’s just that students feel more comfortable talking to their administration which shows trust and action, and faith in the process for a lot of people who are reporting these assaults.
If a school tells you they have no sexual assaults, that’s not good. That’s saying that their students don’t have any faith in the administration to come forward and report it. It’s not saying that sexual assault doesn’t happen there. It certainly is getting muddier and I think part of this ties in to the media and how that we were able to have access to all this and we’re writing BuzzFeed articles and things are happening on Twitter. Anybody can be a writer now and so things get bigger quicker.
It is certainly interesting. One of the things we recently started talking about was that we have a legal driving limit for alcohol, it’s .08 and there’s no legal consent equivalent. In a lot of states, in a lot of schools they say if you’re intoxicated, you’re unable to consent but it doesn’t say what intoxicated means and that’s different for everybody. I might process alcohol differently than you do based on what I had for lunch or if I worked out and if we’re drinking enough water. Two drinks to me might be a different than two drinks to you. There’s no line for that, there’s no sex breathalyzer and part of what we do is encourage people to have these conversations.
If you think you or your partner might be too drunk to consent, don’t. Don’t do it. Wait until you’re both sober. The risk of hurting someone or breaking the law is much greater than asking to wait until another time. It’s tricky. We get that question a lot how drunk is too drunk and where is that line? The answer is we don’t know but we encourage people again to communicate and check themselves and think about what they want and how their partner is doing. Even if you’re looking for notches on the bedpost, what kind of a notch is it if someone is unable to consent?
Lisa Belisle: I think we’ve also even had to come to the place where we recognized that we used to think of rape as being stranger and now the fact is that a lot of sexual assault is acquaintance. That’s something that’s tough to wrap your head around is somebody that you are friends with could potentially do something harmful to you.
Shane Diamond: Yeah, it’s really hard. I remember I was looking at colleges in 2005 and the blue light system was really popular and so you should be able to see a blue light from another blue light and they were emergency phones because someone could jump out of the bushes and rape you. What they’re finding out is that over 70% of assaults the perpetrator is known to the survivor so you’re right, it’s someone you have class with, it’s a friend, it’s a partner. Certainly there are people who are malicious but I think for the most part it’s miscommunications and it’s a lack of language.
It’s making assumptions either based on past activities, “We had sex last Saturday. It’s okay to have sex this Saturday or I don’t want to ask because it’s my partner and I know or it’s my partner and I don’t want to say no.” A lot of this muddied communication mostly well-intentioned people with a lack of language and then confidence to be able to use it and that’s what we’re trying to teach.
Lisa Belisle: The other thing that I think we’ve had to work on is the fact that as a woman you can sexually assault a man and traditionally this idea was with at least penetrative assault it was always the male that raped the female and that’s had to change.
Shane Diamond: It has, and I think that has probably always been happening. We just haven’t been talking about it. One of the things that I love about Speak About It is we present a range of experiences so people who are having sex, not having sex, experimenting with their sexuality, we share about 18 monologues throughout the show. It’s an hour-long performance. We share about 18 monologues, all which are true stories that have been sent to us by students. Our hope is that everybody in the audience can relate to some part of the show whether it’s one of these monologues, if it’s one of the skits that we do, some of the dialogue or if it just seeing someone on stage who looks familiar, it’s really important to us that we don’t have five straight white people of equal height on stage.
One of the monologues that we got recently was about a man who was assaulted by a woman and he had a physical response to something. He didn’t have an emotional response but if you touch a body in a certain way, it’s going to respond and him feeling a little bit betrayed by his body. This stereotype of men can’t be assaulted especially if you’re not being penetrated and how do you talk about that? How does queer assault play into this? If you’re two female-bodied people and what does assault look like if we’ve got this paradigm of penetrative rape?
This leaves a lot of people who have bad experiences who are assaulted out of that, out of the equation so we’re trying to add more language to say in any situation regardless of your gender identity or who you’re sleeping with, you’re being sexually active with, if there’s no consent, it’s sexual assault. Of course then, the other side of that is we don’t want to put a label on anyone so if someone comes to me and says, “I had sex. I realized it wasn’t consensual. I didn’t really consent to this.” It’s not my place to say, “Oh, you’re a survivor of sexual assault.” We can have the legal definition that says anything without consent is sexual assault but it’s not for us to place labels on anyone about their experiences.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been doing this now for seven years.
Shane Diamond: Seven years.
Lisa Belisle: What would you like the next seven years to look like?
Shane Diamond: Oh, boy. I’m really excited to have more conversations about pleasure and what that looks like, about empowering people, about how to be healthy media consumers, healthy porn consumers and what that looks like. As I said, a lot of our programming is high school, juniors, and seniors, and college freshmen. You could argue that by the time people are high school juniors, and seniors or college freshmen, they’re already decided how they’re supposed to be sexual beings. We’ve been saturated with media with people telling us how we should look, how we should dress, what we should do and one could argue that by the time we speak to these students, it’s too late.
I would love to see a programming for younger high school students, maybe even middle school students to be able to talk about boundaries and respect and bodies and communication. As I said, we’re going to be at 41 schools in the next few weeks. I want to be everywhere. We should be everywhere. Let’s go everywhere. We’ve done this program at Wesley. We’ve done it at Cape Elizabeth. We do programming at Casco Bay High School. Let’s get all the Maine schools. We’re here. We’re in Portland. Let’s make it happen.
Lisa Belisle: I’m sure that that’s going to happen because it seems like-
Shane Diamond: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: …you’ve had great success so far. I’ve been speaking with Shane Diamond who’s the executive director of Speak About It. A Portland based performance nonprofit promoting consent education and sexual assault awareness at high schools and universities and also apparently retirement facilities around the world. Congratulations on the work that you’ve done so far and good luck with your future endeavors.
Shane Diamond: Thank you so much and if people want to check out what we do, you can find our website speakaboutitonline.com. We’re on Facebook, Facebook/speakaboutit or Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, Snapchat behind the scenes, @wespeakaboutit. Keep in touch, Follow us, like us. We’ll like you back. Be a part of the conversation and thank you again for having me. I’m really honored to be a part of this.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is also brought to you by Aristelle, a lingerie boutique on Exchange Street in Portland’s Old Port, where every body is seen as a work of art and beauty is celebrated from the inside out. Shop with us in person or online at aristelle.com
Lisa Belisle: Alison Beyea is the executive director of the ACLU of Maine where she oversees the organization’s legal, legislative, public education and development activities. Thanks for coming in today.
Alison Beyea: Thanks so much for having me.
Lisa Belisle: I know. We’re especially fortunate because you don’t have a lot going on right now.
Alison Beyea: It is an exceptionally busy time unfortunately.
Lisa Belisle: I guess I want to talk about that but I know that as an attorney, you could have chosen any number of different things to get into and you chose this. Why? What’s your background?
Alison Beyea: There’s so many things that go into creating who we become as people and it’s hard to not look back to the early years to think about what motivated us, what impressions we had. I was fortunate to grow up in a family of activists, of people who were committed to social justice and environmental justice. In some ways, I’m not sure it was a choice so much as a destiny to follow in my parent’s footsteps. I think the family joke is that there was… Once I came home in third grade complaining about how the boys wouldn’t let me play football during recess and then planning my critique to the administration. That was a good sign that probably I was going to be set for a path of activism.
Lisa Belisle: That’s interesting because other people might have come home in third grade and just been like, “I can’t play football, go do something else.” Instead it’s like, “How am I going to work on this problem? How am I going to affect change?”
Alison Beyea: I was very lucky to be surrounded by people both in my… Many people in the school and my family who really taught me that as a woman, I had a right to all of the same advantages that other people were being offered and so that was something that was supported that I had a place in our society, I had a place in our community and I should be equally participating in that.
Lisa Belisle: Define for me if you would civil liberties?
Alison Beyea: Civil liberties and civil rights is really very much about the relationship between us as individuals and our government. This country was founded on some wonderful values, aspirational mostly because we weren’t really living many of those values at the time the constitution was created but they’re really a set of guidelines about how we should be treated as individual human beings by our government and civil liberties is particularly related to our freedom, to express ourselves. Our freed to not be confined by our government and our freedom to really participate in our community.
Lisa Belisle: When you talk about our country being founded on a nice set of guidelines for civil liberties, it doesn’t mean that our country was actually engaging in these?
Alison Beyea: It really is something that I myself have to find a new language to talk about because I think many of us who grow up with I mean whatever obstacles I face they were nothing compared to what many Americans face today. I think it’s important that we say in the constitution it is a rule book to a certain extent but even though it was founded on those basic values of equality, we were not honoring that. It’s taken generations and clearly we’re not done. We are not done with a quest for people being valued for who they are no matter what the color of their skin, no matter what religion they practice or no religion. I like to think of our work at the ACLU is trying to help us get closer to those values every day.
Lisa Belisle: It’s a big thing. I mean that’s an enormous aspiration. If it were easy, it would have happened a few hundred years ago, right?
Alison Beyea: Absolutely. There’s so many ways that our system perpetuates itself and power structures perpetuates itself and it’s not easy. I often say that I am fundamentally an optimist. I could not do this work if I didn’t believe in the power of community or connection between individuals and the power for us to evolve. I mean despite what seemed to be many setbacks right now, we really have made progress. In some areas much more rapidly than others and some of those thorny issues related to race do not seem to be moving forward with the speed that other issues have, but we are. We are making progress. Even back in the ‘70s, I was able to play football and that was progress from my mother’s generation. We are making incremental change and I do believe that each of us can play a role and getting us closer to those founding ideals of the constitution.
Lisa Belisle: Overtime as part of the ACLU, have you seen a shift from the types of things that were being focused upon and are being focused upon now?
Alison Beyea: I think that in some ways in Maine over the last six or seven years, we had been confronting some of the very difficult negative issues that now the country is facing. We have seen an increase in, I guess what I would call wedge issues, issues that relate to typically underserved communities whether that’s low-income people, whether that’s racial minorities, whether that’s immigrant status. I have seen increasingly and we have seen in our office a repolarization on those issues and that is manifesting itself in the public discourse how people talk to each other and it’s definitely representing itself in our state legislature which I think many people would agree is more divided than it’s ever been.
Lisa Belisle: How do we get here? How do we get to a place of being so polarized?
Alison Beyea: I wish I had an answer to that question. I think that some of it comes from the issues we’re just talking about. There are some deeply entrenched systemic systems of oppression that we as a community have not figured out how to deconstruct and many people are invested in maintaining those structures. I think some people believe that these issues have always been there and we just weren’t talking about them and in a time of more rapid media, more ability for us to just talk to ourselves than not talk to other people, we are increasingly saying things that are displaying such hostility. I think there’s probably many, many reasons that we got here. I think the result is really incredibly destructive to so many people’s lives. We see that in our office every day.
Lisa Belisle: Give me some examples of that. What are some of the things that people are coming to needing help with?
Alison Beyea: Much of what we do at the ACLU is at a larger policy level. We fight for things in the legislature, we file law suits to try to have a larger impact but it’s really the stories of the clients who we help. That is what keeps us feeling inspired to do our work. Last year, we were able to highlight an issue that many people refer to as debtor’s prison and what is it about is how low income people get caught in a cycle in the court system and actually stay locked up in jail because they literally cannot to pay their bail or pay their fine.
Not because they’re a threat to the community but because they simply don’t have enough money to get out. This has been referred to as debtor’s prison. The Supreme Court has found it to be unconstitutional and so it’s a practice that has been creeping back into the American justice system. We’ve been looking to do that and we’ve made a lot of progress and I’m very pleased with the people who are partnering with us but we’re able to get a young woman who we actually had a court clerk call us and say there’s this woman and she can’t get out of jail.
She’s had been there for 10 months and we are able to go before the court, take her case and she was able to go home. It’s just those real lives. She had been sitting there writing letters and trying to get someone to pay attention and by some amount of luck, she would get to us and we’re able to help her. It’s those actual stories of individual lives that help us stay motivated to try to work on larger issues.
Another issue that really just happened about a week -and-a-half ago the ACLU released a report call named we belong here and it’s based on 10 months of interviews with students and educators around the state about what it’s like to be an immigrant kiddo here in Maine and the stories are horrific. The way our young people who come from different countries have different colors of skin pray to different people or different gods are treated is really a wake-up call to those of us who don’t experience it on every day.
Hearing these students particularly now: “I can’t believe you told our story. Thank you. No one believed that this was happening.” When they call us and they talk to us and they say, “We want to do something,” and that makes every hour of work worth it that we can help tell stories just like you do and bring that to people around Maine.
Lisa Belisle: Give me examples of some of the things that kids are experiencing?
Alison Beyea: Let me start by saying one of the things we did and support was also identifying all of the unique and exciting programs that are happening in schools. Schools are finding ways to try to combat these problems and we really wanted to highlight those because we want other schools to feel inspired that it’s not just this task that they’ll never be able to accomplish but you really can make a difference in kids’ lives.
What we’re hearing about is systemic and repeated bullying. Girls having their hijab yanked at when they walked through the halls. There’s a story of a young girl who made the varsity soccer team and high school and was so proud and they got to the finals and the referee would not let her play unless she took her headscarf, which is illegal, unconstitutional but yet no one knew to speak up for her. The ref may not have not understood himself. She had to make a choice between her religion and participating in this goal that she had worked so long for.
Kids shouldn’t have to make those choices. There are persistent name-calling, scrolling of racial epithets not just immigrants and black students but to Latino students, any sort of immigrant you might see. Let me say, most educators would say this is not new and it certainly extends to the LGBT community really any group that is traditionally been targeted, schools are not able to protect the students in the way that the law requires.
Lisa Belisle: Is it made more difficult now because there’s so many other extenuating circumstances. It used to be students go to school, come home, we have telephones, we don’t have computers, we don’t have social media, we don’t have all these other layers which interconnect people. Is it harder now for schools to get a handle on some of the stuff?
Alison Beyea: I started my career representing kids and I work with schools a lot back in the ‘90s and early 2000’s and there is no doubt that schools are being asked to do 10 times more with 10 times less. Then you add technology challenges and I think it is really daunting what they are being asked to do. Yes, I think it is harder. I also think it is harder and our political landscape is full of statements by elected officials that are racially charged and really I think with permission for statements to be made that schools are trying to figure out how to protect their environment so that all kids have the ability to have access to an education and feel safe to learn.
Lisa Belisle: One of the things that I hear often is this idea of free speech and so people will use it on both sides that I should be able to say whatever I want because I have the right of free speech and if free speech turns into something heedful or turns into something that prevents somebody from accessing something that they have a right to like an education that seems to be the sticking point is that you can’t just have people running around saying whatever they feel like because even if they have the right to do it, they’re still impacting other people.
Alison Beyea: You’re absolutely right and I think it’s important that people remember that the amendment applies to government. This is only when the government is telling one person and that they can’t speak and another person they can speak. It’s really about a government individual relationship. The context of schools, you’re absolutely right, there comes a time when speech can create such a hostile environment that it impacts other people’s rights to accessing education and so the first time is not a defense to allowing speech that is denying other people their rights just to go rampantly.
I think it’s very popular to just say, “I have a first amendment right to say that.” You have a right to know how the government restricts you in certain context but there’s many ways that government has reasonable ability to restrict that. I think that’s what the schools are wrestling with our laws in Maine are pretty clear that the school does have the ability to make sure to limit what’s happening in the school classroom to make sure people can actually learn.
Lisa Belisle: One of the things I wonder about as the mother of a 21-year-old daughter and a 24-year-old son, and a 16-year-old daughter is it because we’ve come so far in so many ways that maybe there’s the sense that we could just sit back and relax and not have to work too much harder in areas like maybe gender equality. I’m not sure how you feel about this. I know you also have children and you’ve worked in the educational field so tell me what you think.
Alison Beyea: It’s really interesting thinking about women’s rights in relation to other rights and is our work done? I mean I would say no. If you look at even who’s in leadership in Maine, you see few… Even in nonprofits you don’t see as many women leaders. I always find this interesting if you look at the nonprofits that the largest nonprofits in Maine so the largest budgets, those are all run by men. I think we still have a long way to go, making sure that women are also in leadership roles.
I mean I think it’s also… Women’s rights are an example where we feel that it is so much better than it was that there’s sometimes a sense of that we’ve done enough. I guess the thing that strikes me most right now and reminds me that women’s justice issues are as important as ever is what we’re seeing in the reproductive healthcare arena. My mother has worked… I followed in her footsteps. She’s worked in women’s rights. She was working on access to abortion in the ‘70s.
I’m with many women of her age on a daily basis and they’re like, “How did this happen that we are not only fighting for access to reproductive care and the ability to decide whether we have children and when we have children. We’re fighting for access to birth control. I mean the very things that allow women to fully participate in this society are being stripped away and so I think that is the most obviously place where you can see that actually those rights are very much unresolved as much as on racial justice and immigration rights. Women are equally targeted right now and we need to continue to really fight for those.
Lisa Belisle: I think for many people that I’ve spoken with, there’s this sense of shock that something that we have finally achieved that we’ve finally taken for granted even the ability to get birth control pills and have them paid for by insurance to backslide and backslide so dramatically. I think it tells us just how shaky that might have been in the first place.
Alison Beyea: It’s a great point. I think there’s been a lot of… I mean one of the things that is so inspiring right now is to see the level of engagements and activism happening in Maine, happening all over the country. People are reengaging in their political process and I think engaging at a local level which is I think where real change will happen. I think that is really inspiring. I think you’re absolutely right. It was always shaky and I think that’s probably a fair critique of people like me, of people whose rights were protected and was not paying attention enough that for many groups it never actually came there.
I think this is a really important moment for progressive leaders to recognize that sometimes we have stopped fighting for movements once we’ve gotten what we’ve wanted and we need to really make sure that everyone is having a seat at the table. Everybody is included and in the long run we built that movement that everyone is equally valued and equally part of it and that we don’t give away rights for some groups just to get them for others. I think we will build a lasting change that we want to see so that our daughters, great-granddaughters, this will be not a thing anymore.
Lisa Belisle: Do these seats at the table include people that don’t necessarily think the way that we do?
Alison Beyea: What a great question. I don’t know that I have a great answer to that. I do think that the way we become estranged from each other is part of the problem. I think we all like to see the narrative that we like to see. I think the soundbite culture doesn’t help this. People are looking for just a phrase as opposed to a deep conversation. I think for all of our American bravado, we actually aren’t very thick skinned and I think we have trouble having difficult conversations. I think, yes, I do think that those conversations need to happen. When I think about in what order, I think some of it is there’s still enough work to be done even within the community that is trying to advocate for more equality and more freedom.
That groups needs to do a little more work with itself to make sure everyone is at that table. Before maybe, we tackle those issues but I think you’re absolutely right to focus on it that we let ourselves off the hook at the thanksgiving table or in those moments when you’re out with someone and you’re talking to them and they say something and you’re like, “Do I say something? Do I talk about why that hurts or do I just pretend it didn’t happen?” I think we have to do a lot more talking about what hurts.
Lisa Belisle: I had a conversation the other day about somebody that I am doing a profile on for Old Port magazine and one of the things that came up was that if you aren’t liberal enough then you can be as progressive and liberal as almost anybody around you but if you’re not liberal enough then you actually… You don’t even get a seat at that table.
When you’re saying even working within our own group that comes up for me is this idea that only some people have the right to talk and those are the people that have what are believed to be the right answers way over on one side. This bothers me as somebody that has… I have tried to be thoughtful about my life. I have tried to be thoughtful about my children and my patience and the way that I live and so the silencing that I have felt myself doing because I don’t have as far leaning of you as some people. It actually makes me feel like I’m more in step with maybe people on the other side, but I don’t want to get to the place where I am that angry that I am not polarized. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Alison Beyea: I mean the solution for me because I promised you at the ACLU there’s always people left of me and there’s always people right of me. As an organization we confuse people constantly because we take positions on both sides. What has been really resonating for me in the last few years as we’ve grown, we’ve become a much larger staff. We’ve been able to hire a lot more young people and it is a constant lesson in humility. I mean I am just amazed at how often I see the world through the world that I grew up in and really paying attention to how defensive I get in that situation.
I’m very fortunate because when I am called out, it is called out in a very supportive and engaged thoughtful process. I think the problem is it’s not always done that way. I do think that for me I have softened a lot more into that experience of humility which does not come easily to me of I might have something more to learn and trying to not see it as a critique that I don’t have the cred to do it which I may not. I haven’t experienced many of the things that are happening bit just trying to be open to the listening.
I am considered to be a fairly on the progressive end so I may not feel it the same way someone else would feel it but I am finding that more conversations slowing down which we don’t really give ourselves time to do as working professionals makes that easier to go deep on those conversations which can get really hard. I mean we dedicate our lives to trying to make things better and it’s really hard when someone says you know what, you could still do it better. For what it’s worth, I am finding that to be the most helpful tool in these situations.
Lisa Belisle: I agree. I enjoy watching my daughter who has a gender studies in history concentration on her education. I enjoy her watching conversations with people of varying inclinations because when she started she had learned some things and she is very intelligent and she was more astringent. Overtime, she had learned that in order to actually keep a conversation going, she can’t be astringent, and strident, and focused on only her own views. She has to do that.
Then when she does that, I’ve seen other people who are having a conversation with her open up about their own experiences and be more open to her point of view. Really, I think it can be useful on both sides that people, if they’re able to listen, if they’re able to not be defensive as you said, it can really get you much further in mutual understanding.
Alison Beyea: I would imagine in your medical argument it’s hard because we are hardwired to go into fight or flight and so when someone is saying something, I think it really is hard not. I don’t claim to not … My first reaction isn’t always gentle but I do think ultimately when you soften into that, that is when the relationships deepen and you really can understand what someone is saying. To your earlier point, that’s not what our modern culture expects. It’s the sound bite, it’s the tweet, it’s the line that will get attention. None of this encourages deeper understanding.
Lisa Belisle: There are some times honestly where you have to stand up and you have to use your voice and you can’t be softening and you can’t be … I mean none of us wants to engage in conflict but sometimes conflict is required. It just is a necessity.
Alison Beyea: Absolutely. I think really what we’re trying to make sure, at least in the ACLU isn’t those people who need to be able to have their voices heard have the power and the support to speak.
Lisa Belisle: That is a perfect way to end this conversation which I think is very interesting and very appropriate given what’s going on in the world these days. I hope the people will take the time to learn more about what the ACLU is doing because obviously we’re just touching the very surface of some of the things that you are working on right now. I’ve been speaking with Alison Beyea who’s the executive director at the ACLU of Maine where she oversees the organization’s legal legislative public education and development activities.
Alison Beyea: Thank you so much for having me.
Lisa Belisle: Thank you. You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 322. Our guests have included Shane Diamond and Alison Beyea. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as @drlisa and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. We love to hear from you so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week.
This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. I hope you have enjoyed our show. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producers are Paul Koenig and Brittany Cost. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy. Our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at lovemaineradio.com
Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio show number 321, airing for the first time on Sunday, November 12, 2017. Today’s guests are Jud Knox, CEO of York Hospital and Dr. Betsy Johnson, president and CEO of the Maine Health Accountable Care organization. Thank you for joining us.
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Lisa Belisle: Jud Knox has served as the president and CEO of York Hospital since 1982. Thanks for coming in today.
Jud Knox: You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Lisa Belisle: I’m really very interested in York Hospital and part of this came from going down to visit last, I guess it was last fall now when the organization was doing a fundraiser and had started to do some more work in the area of elderly care. But I what I like about York Hospital is that you’ve been innovative for quite some time. How did you get involved in this innovative organization?
Jud Knox: I started at York Hospital in 1982 and at the time that I arrived that it was already a community hospital that was very patient focused and the staff concentrated very carefully on what’s right for patient’s families and the community. That was very good fortune for me. I was able to learn from the folks who were there, share some of my own values and hopes and aspirations with the folks who were there and the folks who are still there.
Lisa Belisle: I’m looking at your name tag, it has your first name and underneath the tag line is, love and kindness. It’s kind of unusual for a health care organization, is it not?
Jud Knox: It is a bit unusual. Love and kindness is a value set about nonjudgmental acceptance of people where they are and doing the best one can to enhance their lives and their wellbeing. It is probably a unusual phrase or value set to use in a hospital setting but I find it and others have found it very meaningful as a guideline, as a foundation for trying to take care of other people and trying to improve the lives of others.
Lisa Belisle: Your hospital is known for integrative care. You’ve been doing work in integrative medicine really a few decades now, probably longer but at least as long as I’ve been aware of it. You are one of the leaders within our state. How did that happen?
Jud Knox: The foundation blocks are something like being open to what individuals need and want. Perhaps providing care in a way that isn’t dictated from a set of perceptions but is more open to what people need. Whether it’s integrative care or greater family inclusion or just embracing people as who they are and what they need. That’s all part of what we try to do. We’re not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but that’s the value set that we try to bring to take care of people. It’s very similar to members of one’s family. Members of one’s family are all different. They have different expectations, different wants and different needs, they’re still members of the family, they’re still embraceable, they’re still engageable and so it is with everyone we try to take care of.
Lisa Belisle: At the same time you still are responsible for budgets and numbers and quality metrics and meeting the needs of insurers and the government and regulatory agencies so that’s an interesting thing to have to balance as the CEO.
Jud Knox: You’re so very right. It’s a very interesting and often challenging, the set of opposing forces in many ways. There’s a lot in healthcare, there’s a lot in medicine that’s structured, regulated, defined. There’s a lot of financial and regulatory restrictions that can very easily get one restricted or defined by all those forces. Because of that it takes some extra effort to take care of folks where they are in that context. It probably takes a little bit of rebelliousness to say, “Okay I know this is the form out there, this is the model, this is the template, if you will, but let’s bring ourselves back to center. Bring ourselves back to our overriding purposes. It’s more important than all of that.” That’s the person and the people, the folks that we’re trying to take care. It is a bit of a balance and I’m not going to tell you that by any stretch of the imagination that we always stay exactly on the rails or perhaps exactly in the bounds as others might define them.
Lisa Belisle: Having worked now over the course of 20 years of being a doctor both at the Maine Health System and also with Central Maine Healthcare and having done an article about Maine health and interviewed Bill Caron and worked with Peter Chalke before he retired at Central Maine Healthcare, one of the things that is very clear is that you’re dealing with the shifting sands of the landscape and it seems as though medicine has made some dramatic leaps but perhaps more challenging is that it’s making subtle movements even as you’re trying to deal with the dramatic leaps. Would you agree?
Jud Knox: I would very definitely agree with you. There are leaps, there are big steps, there are tiptoes, there are stumbles and they’re all happening simultaneously. One of the most interesting things for us to be attentive to, those of us who are trying to provide healthcare and medical care is to be really cognoscente of what’s happening in the broader social context. We don’t in healthcare live on an island. We cannot pretend or be effective ignoring the rest of the social movements that are going on. It’s fascinating, I often talk to my leadership group about interestingly enough, what’s happening in retail. What are the lessons in retail that one can apply? They aren’t necessarily neatly analogous but what can be applied by what’s happening in retail? Because those same movements, those same changes are going to change people’s habits and conduct and going to very much reflect on what happens with people’s wants and needs in medical care.
Some of our greatest challenges are to me, not necessarily the steps that are going on within medicine and the changes that are going on within medicine. If anything, those changes may be more slowly occurring than the changes that are going on more broadly. That’s a little bit, I’m a very positive guy, but that’s a little bit of a danger signal for medicine and those of us providing healthcare.
Lisa Belisle: The dangerous signal being …
Jud Knox: Make sure we pay attention to what’s going on outside our realm as well as what we’re aware of and know about inside our service industry, if you will.
Lisa Belisle: Having known many doctors and having been a doctor, I’ve had a bit of sense that there’s an ivory tower thing that has happened for many years. Not unlike academia. It’s understandable that if somebody gets a lot of education they probably assume that they know a lot and they want to stay in that tower where things feel safe. It’s not always been my experience that every single person, every single doctor, every single healthcare provider wants to take a broader view. Some people would prefer to stay in that ivory tower. Not all. I have plenty of doctor friends who are very open minded and very aware of social considerations. How do you deal with people who would really prefer just to stay where they’re comfortable?
Jud Knox: It is a difficult thing because I respect the training, education, experience, skills that folks bring to take care of other people. Changing or impacting those folks’ attitude or approach to what they’re doing is really bit of a delicate piece. It’s not to force them to change because they’re wrong, it’s not to impose something on them because they’re going in the wrong direction, it’s really tried to try to suggest that they have enormous heart and head to offer but to be able to offer it effectively we all need to recognize that we may have to offer it differently than we have in the past. It doesn’t make the skillset wrong, it doesn’t make the delivery wrong, it doesn’t make the approach wrong, but it may mean that who we’re trying to help is in a different place than they were a number of years ago and to be effective in helping them we need to do some changing.
It’s a bit of a challenge to stay away from not that you suggested it, but it’s a bit of a challenge to stay away from the right and wrong piece. I often have discussions about whether walk in care is episodic so it’s not good and primary care is longitudinal so it is good. I really try to stay away from the good bad piece. If we’re trying to take care of people, what are the vehicles that are going to be effective in embracing them?
Lisa Belisle: That’s a very important point and that is that when we look at something like evidence based medicine we tend to be very algorithmic. There’s a good, there’s a bad. There’s a yes, there’s a no. That’s really a weird thing to try to impose upon the human organism which is multi variant. We have different genetic structures, we have been raised in different social cultures. It’s a funny thing, we want to offer the best care and most doctors I have met have want to offer the absolute best care. If they need to say something is right in order to offer that care, that’s where they’re coming from the very best place. But it’s not a black and white situation often.
Jud Knox: I agree with you. It is a very, very valuable point. The physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants that I know all want to do the right thing to help other people. There’s is no question about that. Not any. We have built a lot of templates. We’ve built a lot of protocols. We’ve built a lot of, through professional associations and regulatory approaches, the right ways to do things. We’ve in some ways constructed a bit of trap for ourselves even though we have to deal with that trap in the current. We have to develop the ability to live in the present but extend ourselves out to what might be in the possibilities in the future. Possibilities that we see and possibilities that the people that we are taking care of see. That’s a difficult thing.
Lisa Belisle: At one point in my career I was very, I went from being an idealistic medical student and very excited about the possibilities of my career to being very disappointed because the reality of caring for people is very sobering. People are very complicated and their social situations are very complicated. I so wanted to do things well that I was just destroyed when I realized I couldn’t be perfect for them. I’ve come to the other side now and I really feel very optimistic about what we have to offer people within our system. Part of the reason I feel optimistic is that we are heading towards a time where we more appreciate teamwork. Where we more appreciate working in a structure where everybody has something to offer. We don’t, as a doctor, I don’t have to be perfect because I have other people that I work with who can do other things probably better than I can. We’re starting to educate our medical students this way now too. Have you noticed things like this playing out within your system?
Jud Knox: As tumultuous as medical care and healthcare delivery is today that we’re making positive progress. Some of the confusion, if you will, contradiction and even dissatisfaction is helping us formulate a different set of expectations and deliverables than we have in the past. That’s making us or allowing us to be more flexible and more individual oriented than perhaps the approach that we’ve built in the past. I do believe that, the team approach is freeing. The idea that none of us are perfect and none of us have all the answers even the answers that we have aren’t necessarily the right answers for everyone we’re taking care of and being okay with that. We are evolving as caregivers, as carers, we are evolving in that way. It’s improving.
Lisa Belisle: The other thing that I feel optimistic about is something that I heard somebody else who studies medical education speak about in a talk he gave to the first year Maine Track students that work with Tufts and also Maine Medical Center and he said, “You are in great time because we have high tech. We’ve made these advances in medicine that have helped a lot of people and we are understanding how important relationships are again. This next generation of students and practitioners can use both sides of their skillsets. They can be able to have high tech and high touch. They can use integrative care like massage or acupuncture and they can use robotic medicine.” That’s probably the most exciting thing that I have heard somebody talk about in medicine recently. York Hospital is really attempting to do that.
Jud Knox: the most important thing any of us have are relationships. The most important things we can have. Relationships are a connection of compassion and love and whether it’s in medical care or any other part of our life. Anything we do in a really meaningful way, in my opinion, has to be based on relationships and relationships are one to one, constantly dynamic and always work. Not necessarily bad work but always work. If we’re going to help people, if we’re going to deliver care, the foundation is the relationship. Recognizing that is probably one of the most important things we can do moving forward.
Lisa Belisle: As far as relationships are concerned one of things that I noticed when I was at the fundraiser, I don’t even think it was just a fundraiser, it was also an announcement of a grant that was being given by a family to advance care for older people, but I was impressed with the community. I was impressed with the people who had shown up to celebrate this work. I was impressed with, and I have been consistently impressed with the people who’ve remain committed to York Hospital, who want to see it furthered. You have had some beautiful new structures put in place, your physical plant is obviously evolving and lovely but more importantly the community support is so strong. That’s something that as we’ve evolved into health systems doesn’t always maintain its importance.
Jud Knox: I’m a very strong believer in the connection with community which is to me about relationships. For York Hospital to be valuable, no less sustainable. The organization then, the folks in the organization have to work on those relationships all the time. Communities aren’t stagnant they change. Their characters change. How do we change as an organization to keep that relationship in a valuable place for the community? Again, I’m not professing perfection or awesome achievement but it is the piece that I feel is extremely important for community medicine. The development of systems and expansions of major, major providers of care, we’re in a very interesting market in York, Portsmouth Hospital is owned by Hospital Corporation of America which is 180 hospitals around the country. Another hospital on the seacoast has now been purchased by Mass General. Happens to be one of the larger providers in New England. And here’s York Hospital is a 55 bed independent hospital sitting in a number of relatively small communities.
I’m not boasting about that position, I’m merely saying that the relationship piece our work on relationships with the communities is why we still have good relationships with those folks. I don’t know longer term the answer to your question and it’s a wonderful question. A bit perplexing. How are those relationships maintained as organizations cover states and regions? Not community or groups of communities. I’m not sure.
Lisa Belisle: Can you give me an example of a change that you have seen in the time that you’ve been in York Hospital starting in 1982 that has surprised you? Whether it’s a change of attitude, whether it’s a change of circumstance. Maybe it’s a person’s change of mind.
Jud Knox: The change that’s been the greatest in my years at York Hospital is the movement of physicians from private practice to employment. Decades ago as a hospital executive I worked with physicians in relationships where they were in private practice and worked at the hospital and there was an interesting and for the most part, pretty comfortable set of relationships, mutually respective relationships developed. Today we have probably 160 providers employed at York Hospital. Employment when we talk about physicians is not necessarily a positive word. But most importantly it’s a totally new relationship with providers. I’m not sure anybody’s really comfortable with it yet and there are organization who have been in these structures, employment structures long before we were. Long, long before we were. Perhaps those with that experience are but it’s still an awkward relationship. That’s interesting for me to stay after talking so much about the importance of relationships and positive relationships. That’s the biggest change.
Is it a good change? One might ask and it can be and is transitioning us to a good set of positive relationships but I’ll just speak for ourselves. We’re not there yet. We’re still trying to figure out what that new relationship is. It’s as if we formed it, the relationship, the employment relationship without sitting down and going okay, doctor, what would you like this relationship to be for you? And hospital, what are your expectations out of this relationship? Interestingly enough, at least in my experience, we never had those discussions. We had the, I’d like to be employed. Here’s our contract. That’s not a great way to develop relationships. Are we learning? Yes we’re learning and we’ve moved some significant distance but we’ve still got a ways to go.
Lisa Belisle: What is your hope for the future?
Jud Knox: My hope for the future is that there are no barriers to great medical care. I’m a universalist from that perspective. I’m a open access, everybody deserves the best medical care that we can bring about to folks that we can bring to folks. That’s what I hope. We’re really lucky in our corner of the world, we provide care to everybody comes to our doors regardless of their ability to pay and I’m very proud of that. We’re a little microcosm compared to the broader picture and that open access would, that would be my dream.
Lisa Belisle: Well I hope that you see your dream.
Jud Knox: Thank you very much.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Jud Knox who has served the president and CEO of York Hospital since 1982. I really appreciate your having the time to come in talk with me today and I appreciate the work you’re doing.
Jud Knox: Thank you, my pleasure. Very happy to be here.
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Lisa Belisle: Dr. Betsy Johnson is the president and CEO of Maine Health Accountable Care Organization at Maine Health just up the street. Nice to see you today.
Betsy Johnson: Nice to be here.
Lisa Belisle: I’m interested in the type of work that you do because I know that you and I both have a background in primary care medicine really but also in public health and you’ve gone into an increasingly important area of medicine and it’s the administrative, more of the administrative aspect of healthcare. I want to talk about that but first, why make that decision?
Betsy Johnson: My journey in healthcare, I can’t say that I ever knew where it would take me when I went into primary care 20 odd years ago. But certainly what puts me where I am today is where I started back then. Practicing, I’m an internist, got out of residency and jumped into a primary care practice, Boston, which I loved, in fact I worked for a HMO, managed care organization and which was then called Harvard Community Health Plan. They provided excellent superlative care. Everything under one roof. That was my first experience in practicing medicine. I learned how to manage a population of patients, we had capitated care and in the 90s as I was practicing there, healthcare blew up. Truly, you probably experienced that too, Lisa. That the HMOs for all some good reasons really blew up under pressure we moved into, I experienced moving into a fee for service world of medicine.
It went backwards for me. I started in one place and then moved into this world of fee for service and volume and more is better and let’s do everything. As I continued on this journey, I also got involved in the business side of medicine and had opportunities to seek some business education and learned more about as I watched this unraveling of one type of care to another and was truly concerned and bothered by it. I thought, I need to do something about this. I need to, I wanted to get involved so ultimately my path to where I am now in an accountable care organization is an opportunity for me to take all those years of experience and watch, as we’re all watching how medicine is unfolding and the problems persist. I feel that in Maine, in this accountable care organization, is a place where I can hopefully make a difference.
Lisa Belisle: Let’s define a couple of words for people who are listening. One is capitation. What did it mean to be practicing under a capitated system?
Betsy Johnson: We talk a lot about we want to move to a fully capitated model in healthcare or we want to a partially capitated model. What does that mean? That means that a physician or provider group or a hospital by the insurance companies which can either be commercial companies or it can be our government medicare, will pay the system upfront. The global capitation is when we figure out how many patients Lisa you have in your panel, you have 2,000 patients and we’re going to pay you certain amount per patient per month to take care of that patient and you get it upfront and you manage under that budget. It’s no different really than having a household budgets. It’s how I like to compare it sometimes.
We know how much money we have and we have to live within it. It’s a similar concept for the health system of total capitation. There’s lots of intricacies involved in that. We have targets we have to hit and there’s lots of ways we calculate how much money you would get per member per month and then sometimes we try to calculate, we don’t do a full capitation but we capitate only to primary care doctors. That’s a little bit what capitation. It’s different than the system that we live under now so we pay providers and we pay for hospital care and we pay for nursing home care. Basically we bill out by how many services we rendered. It’s a volume based world.
Lisa Belisle: When you say fee for service, essentially somebody comes in, we do something with them and then we ask the insurance company or the government to pay for that one particular encounter versus getting paid whether a person comes in or not, into the practice because they’ve been, quote capitated.
Betsy Johnson: Right. There are pros and cons of both systems and having lived under both of them in a capitated model you have funds to take care of the patient whether they’re there in front of you or not. In a fee for service world you’re thinking about the patient only when they’re in front of you in your office. There’s lots of other things you need to help the patient think about for their health and wellness that not only in that one moment when they’re in your office for 15 minutes. Having funds for your practice to have a nurse, a population health nurse who might outreach and tell them it’s time for their flu shot or it’s time for them to check for how they are doing on their diabetic diet or their exercise. All those other things and health that we don’t necessarily pay for up front.
Lisa Belisle: Since we’ve made this really dramatic shift, and we’re still shifting.
Betsy Johnson: Absolutely.
Lisa Belisle: I don’t think we’ve gone completely from one to the other. What were some of the pluses and minuses of capitation when we were actually in a system where we had the ability to have a certain amount of money for each person. And really focus on wellness?
Betsy Johnson: That was the issue. In HMO days in capitated models the danger is that if you don’t constantly check for quality or patient experience there can be first incentives to have a pot of money and not perhaps do everything that you should do. If you do less services you’re going to have more money. That’s what, that could happen. Not all health systems did that or would do that. There’s ethics involved here. The incentives can get mixed sometimes. In accountable care which people ask me a lot, how is accountable care different from capitated HMO days?
There’s such an emphasis today on having quality metrics in place. The checks and balances of if we’re going to provide these services or we’re going to be given this money to take care of these funds, these precious funds to take care of a community, then we need to make sure that we are living up to what we said we would do for quality and that we would do what we said to live up to the patient’s experience of that. Those are in place now. That’s what we’re doing. Now we’re in a world of there’s a lot of emphasis on quality. Lisa, you tell me, it can be really frustrating for providers, all this emphasis on metrics and comparing ourselves to each other. How well do I manage my diabetic patient versus someone else? It’s continuing to evolve and what the right way to incent the quality without putting the people and providers who are trying to take care of patients under more duress?
Lisa Belisle: Having now been working with Central Maine Healthcare for four years and previously in my own private practice, I can see good and bad things about all the things that you’re talking about. I do love the idea that we want to take care of our patients. We want to give them the best possible care so if you have somebody who has diabetes, you want to make sure that their blood sugars are down and you want to make sure that they’ve had their eyes examined and we want to make sure that the nerves in their feet are still working and that we’ve checked their cholesterol and all of these things that are being measured ’cause this is important for somebody that has diabetes. On the other hand, these are still people. It’s not like somebody’s bringing …
Betsy Johnson: They’re not a metric.
Lisa Belisle: They’re not. And it’s not like somebody’s bringing their cocker spaniel to the veterinarian and you say to the owner of the cocker spaniel, “Okay, you need to do this to your dog.” These are people who can make decisions and sometimes they don’t want to do the things that we’re asking them to do. Even if they completely understand why we think they should.
Betsy Johnson: We are all only human. That’s the field, the profession that we’re in for taking care of people it’s our job to inform, to help, to connect, to listen, to give them the best services but you’re right, even every human being is in a different part of their life and sometimes they’re going to connect into that and be able to listen and do what’s best for health and other times they’re not. And there’s many reasons and one of the things we can also talk about is this emerging theme of understanding the social determinants of health. That has been neglected in the healthcare world. What are the social determinants of health? That’s everything else that affects someone’s life other than their medical issues. Their financial situation, their transportation opportunities, their education, all of those things impact how well, as you said earlier, someone’s going to be able to take care of themselves. We haven’t, I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to that in the healthcare arena.
Lisa Belisle: You’re absolutely right. One of things that I’ve noticed with patients is that sometimes we don’t even try to figure out what it is that could be socially impacting their situation because we don’t know that we have anything we can offer them and we like to solve problems as doctors.
Betsy Johnson: And science, use science.
Lisa Belisle: Exactly. If have somebody who has diabetes and they also don’t have access maybe they aren’t able to drive themselves to the supermarket and get healthy fruits and vegetables and they’re relying on the food pantry and as hard as the food pantry tries, they give them a lot of starches and things that are going to shoot their blood sugars up. It’s this really complex system that as a doctor or nurse practitioner or physician assistant, it’s not so easy to get in there and say, “Okay, so do I, how do I get this person a ride more frequently to get fresh fruit and vegetables?” And then it becomes, one of the things that really bothers me is that it becomes almost like there’s a conflict that comes up between the provider and the patient. Because the provider wants one thing and the patient, even if they’d like to do that, they can’t.
Betsy Johnson: They can’t.
Lisa Belisle: That’s tough because that really impacts the relationship between two people which is supposed to be a healing one.
Betsy Johnson: Right, absolutely. Then when it becomes not a healing relationship then you could lose the patient. Then you don’t know where they are or how you can help them. That’s the risk we take. Another area that I think a lot about in this context has been therefore the health system can’t do it all by itself. As a community. I think about that in Maine, as a community, how do we come together differently than we have already? Maine is a wonderful innovation, collaborative community and there’s many good people trying to think about this. We still live in some silos of trying to help the same person and how do we continue to integrate that and come together as a community differently than we are now? That’s one of things I think a lot about.
Lisa Belisle: What are you seeing that is positive in that area? What types of innovations or what types or organizations are working on this problem?
Betsy Johnson: In fact, one of the things that an accountable care organization does, the place I work, which brings together groups of providers and hospitals to take care of for certain population of patients, one of the areas that we focus on is called care coordination. In that we have a staff of people who are working directly with the practices and the providers who are in our network and we work with them to be able to coordinate and there’s some real success stories of coordinating that transition of care from the hospital to the skilled nursing facility to home.
There’s been an increasing emphasis on how well home health can help a patient. Our care coordination department is working to tie those service together. Our care coordination and our care managers also have at their fingertips the information about transportation or about access to medication programs and so there’s a centralized place where we can be a repository of that information and give it out. We have providers in our accountable care network that are both employed by the Maine Health System but also small independent private practices like there used to be in. We try to provide those services across the spectrum across all the different type of practices. There’s some real success stories in there.
Lisa Belisle: I would agree. I’ve seen this first hand when somebody else other than just a doctor, nurse practitioner, physician assistant is there at the one time visit every two months. It’s really a team of people that are there to support people that need the most support. That it’s nice to have someone who can be calling the patient on a regular basis and just saying, “How are you feeling? And how is your blood pressure today? How are your blood sugars looking?” Because that regular checking in, not only does it help us to know how they are clinically, but emotionally, socially, even the loneliness factor that comes into health can be mitigated by this type of interaction. I’ve seen really nice relationships build and people’s health improve because of it.
Betsy Johnson: I absolutely and again, that gets back to that community. Isolation, loneliness greatly impacts health. Just knowing that someone’s out there who’s going to check in with you and then also help you to feel accountable. That accountability role that accountable to your health that you followed up, that you went and picked up your medication. It’s easy not to do that. It’s easy to get mixed up on whether you took your medicine this morning or not. Having people. The other really when you asked about advances, that successes that is just happening faster than we can keep up with in healthcare is the technology aspect. Using other modalities other than just the nurse care manager that might visit the home but using things like our iPhones and telehealth and other ways to connect with patients. That’s an exploding emerging field and healthcare is trying to wrap its arms around it but we have a lot we can do in that area to help improve health.
Lisa Belisle: It’s important that we really be exploring this more and we’ve been very reticent as a field to even engage in the most basic thing as like electronic medical records.
Betsy Johnson: Right. I know.
Lisa Belisle: Just the idea that we need to put something in place so that more people have access even to their own health information that was really something that we were dragging our feet on as only 20 years ago.
Betsy Johnson: Right.
Lisa Belisle: And we’re still really working on this.
Betsy Johnson: We’ve a lot of catch up to do.
Lisa Belisle: We do. And simultaneously our patients still need to be cared for and we still need to take care of the social issues in our community. It is exciting to see but it’s sometimes it can be a little frustrating to be a provider within the system.
Betsy Johnson: Yes. Talk about the providers whether they’re physicians, nurse practitioners, PAs, nurses, medical assistants who are caring, it’s easy to get burned out and overwhelmed in trying to keep up with not only just as you know, taking care, even in our healthcare world 50 years ago, taking care of people as they traveled through life and making sure they have health and wellness is a challenge but with all of the change in having someone just understand an electronic health record which is complex at best and then all of the other things they need to keep up with. The messages from the insurance companies, the messages from the accountable care organization, you need to do this, you need to do that. It’s overwhelming. How can we simplify it and cut through some of the clutter and utilize our tools in a way that is both efficient and effective for the care team? And then ultimately the patient.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking about nurse practitioner and PA and doctor because I think of them as almost most of the time the endpoint in a medical visit. You just raised a really important point and that is that there’s not really an endpoint. That you do have, it starts with a patient service representatives at the front desk and then the medical assistants and then the nurses. I know that the people that I work with in my practice, they make our practice run and every doctor I’ve ever spoken to who is happy in their practice or as happy as one can be, it’s because they have a really great team working with them.
Betsy Johnson: It’s all about the team.
Lisa Belisle: At the same time you’re right. We talk about provider burnout. We talk about doctors getting frustrated. A lot of people who are they’re medical assistants or they’re nurses, they look around at other potential jobs that they could make just as much money for and they say …
Betsy Johnson: It’s not always in healthcare, right.
Lisa Belisle: Exactly. That’s the thing. There are other ways that they could live their lives and be happier and as dedicated as they are to being in the medical field sometimes they just say, “Listen, I don’t have to put up with this anymore.” How do we also keep other members of the team healthy and well?
Betsy Johnson: That’s another passion of mine is thinking about in any organization, I’m sure that’s true here for yours, thinking about the health and wellness of your employees. It’s hard because it’s not always about the money. Certainly everybody wants to get paid for what they’re trained and licensed and educated to do and paid fairly and well but beyond that there’s all those other factors of what makes a healthy work environment, what makes you want to wake up in the morning. In healthcare we’ve already attracted the do gooders. We’ve attracted the people to this profession who want to care and heal others. How do we then support and care and heal them too in a work environment? What do you do?
Making sure leadership is attentive to what’s going on to their employees. Making sure you have programs in place, whether it’s employee engagement events, going offsite for a field trip of some sort or just in the office having coffee and place to decompress in the middle of the day. All those things, being attentive to again, the health and wellness of the employee. If you have a happy work staff it makes for a very rewarding work environment and therefore if you feel good about where you’re working, you’re passing that on to the patient who you’re seeing. That’s been supported in lots of studies that happy healthcare team is going to have a more rewarding and happy patient engagement experience too.
Lisa Belisle: When you were making the decision to go into medicine, what was it about being a doctor that sent you in that direction?
Betsy Johnson: I was very, I am very influenced by my upbringing and my family life. I didn’t have any doctors in my family. My dad was an episcopal priest. I grew up with a mother and a father whose life was committed to a congregation, so community. We basically lived in two places. We’re from the south but we lived in New Jersey for a while in a small community and moved back to Nashville Tennessee. Watching my parents as they … Our life as kids, I have three siblings. We went about our lives but our lives were we lived right next door to the church. There could be phone calls in the middle of the night, everything from happy and sad. Often the middle of the night calls were the hard ones, something bad happening. Grew up to weddings and funerals, people knocking on your door asking for money for gas. I just grew up in an environment of taking care of others.
As I began to sort myself out and think what I wanted to do with my life, I knew in college and I figured that my love sciences and humanities and taking care of people that being a physician would be the right path for me. I love being a doctor. I love the profession and again, that’s part of why I do what I do now because I feel very passionate about trying to continue to make it a field, a profession that is sustainable.
Lisa Belisle: What type of family culture are you yourself providing now?
Betsy Johnson: For my own family?
Lisa Belisle: Yeah.
Betsy Johnson: My husband is a cardiologist so we have two sons who are 15 and 11. Family first. In my life it’s always been family first. It’s part of why we moved to Maine. My husband and I had both gone to college in Maine and we went back and forth and when we decided where we wanted to raise a family we knew Maine was the place to do that. In our lives, even in our professional lives, we have made decisions for the next job or the next activity, we always weigh it against how will that fit into our family life. As you know, childhood for our kids it goes fast. Having a teenager son and a preteen you realize how fleeting it is. Attending to them first and foremost is certainly our approach now. Does work and life and everything get in the way? Yes, but we all juggle those things, I’m sure you do too.
Lisa Belisle: Yes, absolutely there’s always a juggling that goes on. I also think about my own kids when it comes to being my dad was a doctor, I’m a doctor, we have lots of doctors in my brothers and sisters and sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law. If the worst thing that they hear about sitting around the dinner table is our struggles with helping other human beings, that’s not so bad.
Betsy Johnson: Right.
Lisa Belisle: Even if we are as frustrated as we possibly can be because we don’t have the answers or we’re bumping up against some huge social issue at least there’s the effort. At least there’s some sense that we’re in the struggle. We’re working on it. That there’s hope because people are still doing this.
Betsy Johnson: Yes. Sitting around the dinner table is one of the most important things you can do in a family.
Lisa Belisle: That’s a very good point, yes. I am really, it’s taken awhile with your busy schedule to get you in here but I feel great about the conversation and I appreciate your taking the time to do this. I’ve been speaking with Dr. Betsy Johnson who is the president and CEO of the Main Health Accountable Care Organization here in Portland. Keep up the good work and thanks for coming in.
Betsy Johnson: Thank you so much.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 321. Our guests have included Jud Knox and Dr. Betsy Johnson. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as @drlisa and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. We love to hear from you so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week.
This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. I hope you have enjoyed our show. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producers are Paul Koenig and Brittany Cost. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy. And our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at lovemaineradio.com.
Here’s a track from Spencer Albee’s new album Relentlessly Yours, in stores and online now at spenceralbee.com.
Speaker 5: (singing)